arjun chandra

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1. The Talking Drums

2. Too Many Beats (Redundancy) Keeps the Message Alive

3. Redundancy in Language

4. Redundancy in Digital Communication

2. Too Many Beats (Redundancy) Keeps the Message Alive

For a while people thought the roots of drum communication were similar to those which lead to the Morse code. But, the only similarity between drum beats and the electromagnetic beats of the Morse code is that they sound percussive. At heart, they are entirely different processes. While Morse code is essentially an alphabet, where a single dot means 'E' and a single dash means 'T' for instance, African languages had no written form - no Es, no Ts, no As, no Bs. These were purely spoken languages. Drum beats could not represent letters, as there weren't any. They did represent one thing in speech - the tones.

Tonality is key to many languages, both in Africa and Asia: meaning is determined as much by pitch as by the sounds of consonants and vowels. Imagine seeing in black and white and describing the scene - we would lose a lot of valuable details! So is the case when tone is removed from speech in these languages. Most Western languages however are more-or-less tone blind. If we were to drum English messages for instance, it would all sound like a ticking clock, and it would be rather hard to know what's exactly being said. There will be no information in such messages. It would all just sound the same.

In 1949, it was all laid bare by John F. Carrington in his book 'The Talking Drums of Africa'. If one could write an African word or phrase in the Latin alphabet, it would mean different things when spoken in different tone variations. If one were to drum it however, one would get the tone variations right but lose the sounds of vowels and consonants. Thus a drum beat sequences, playing a spoken message tone for tone, would not be able to convey the full message. It would be as if we only saw colours through our eyes and no texture, no depth.

Such reduction in dimensionality came at the cost of losing information. A tonal pattern for some word could in fact be the pattern for hundreds, if not more, of other words. Drum beats would thus have to be padded up with contextual information - more drum beats. One would not simply drum the tones in the word 'wood', say [--], but instead the tones in the phrase 'the wood gives us fuel', say [_--__--_]. This would distinguish the word 'wood' from the word 'lion', which would be drummed as 'the lion makes a funky king', say [_----__-] for instance, if the word 'lion' had the same tonal contours [--] as 'wood' does. A message saying 'bring home some wood today' will not lead to any big surprises at home. The drum messages would have to be "wordy".