Music or language? Sabar, the drum with a grammar


The streets of Nguekhokh, a small town in western Senegal, are filled with their own heartbeat: the beat of the Sabar drums. The musicians who play the Sabar and perform spoken word at parties and ceremonies say that ‘the drum speaks’. They don’t mean this figuratively. Sabar drumming has a grammar. So, is it music or a language?


Drum languages

Speech surrogates that use drums, “drum languages”, are not exclusive to Senegal. They exist across Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania. Many drum languages convey meaning by transforming speech sounds into drum sounds, much like is done in the whistled language ‘el Silbo Gomero’. The original speech sounds can be inferred from the drums, for example by producing as many beats with the drum as there are syllables in speech, so the drum-version of the word ‘lan-gua-ges’ should have three beats. Interestingly, Sabar does not do this! In contrast to the other drum languages, Sabar does not mimic speech sounds, but it does have meaning. How does that work?

“Bam” is a word?

The answer is relatively simple: Sabar has its own words. Like in spoken language, Sabar words consist of particular combinations of sounds. Linguists call the sounds that make up words phonemes. The sounds, or phonemes, are made with one hand and one drumming stick. Which of the two is used, and whether the hand or stick stays on the drum or bounces off, determines which phoneme is produced. Each phoneme has its own name. For example, hitting the edge of the drum with your hand and letting it bounce back produces the phoneme ‘pin’. There are 9 different phonemes in total. You can listen to them here (clip from Winter, 2014). Each word in Sabar is a combination of these phonemes.

Unlike the other drum languages, these drum phonemes do not correspond to the sounds of Wolof, the most widespread language of Senegal. The word ‘sweet’, for example, can be expressed as gin tac: bounce your hand on the drum, then bounce the stick on the drum. This Sabar word doesn’t sound like the Wolof pronunciation of ‘sweet’ at all, which is saf: Wolof ‘sweet’ has only one syllable, but the Sabar word has two beats!

Syntactic beats

Like in other spoken or signed languages, Sabar words can be combined to form sentences. In most cases, sentences in Sabar consist of word-by-word translations from Wolof. In spoken language, this would be as if you’d make a sentence in English, and replace each word with its translation, for example to Spanish. The sentence would still have the word order of English, but the words are different, like in the example below.

English: I give my sister a gift
‘word-by-word’ Spanish: yo doy mi hermana un regalo
Actual Spanish: ‘Le doy un regalo a mi hermana’

In this aspect, Sabar is similar to the other drum languages: these also leave the word order of the spoken language intact.

But there is something special about Sabar sentences. According to Yoad Winter, a linguist from Utrecht University, Sabar has grammatical rules that are different from Wolof. One of them is the way to say that there is more than one of a given thing – to make plurals. In Sabar, this is done by saying it twice. Instead of adding something to the word, like we do in English by adding the ‘s’ to make “drums”, in Sabar you’d say “drum drum”. Linguists call this reduplication. This method to create plurals exists in several languages across the globe, one of them being Malay, but crucially not in Wolof.

A second grammatical rule in Sabar that is different from Wolof is the way to indicate when something is not the case: negation. In Wolof, a sentence is negated by reversing the word order of the first two words in a sentence: the pronoun and the verb. “I don’t want to walk” would be “Want I to walk”. Sabar, on the other hand, seems to change the word order of the whole sentence: “To walk I want”. Although the grammar of negation in Sabar has not been analyzed completely, it is clear that Sabar negation is different from Wolof. These two differences between Wolof and Sabar point to the existence of stand-alone grammar in Sabar: a truly unique feature for a style of music. Or is it a language?

Musical restrictions to Sabar

Sabar has phonemes, words, and its own grammar. So Sabar must be a language, and not music! Right? Well… there are a few aspects of Sabar that are more like music than like language. The first is that the length of sentences in Sabar is restricted by the beat of the music. For example, a sentence with four adjectives fits the beat of Sabar, but a sentence with three does not. This is a bit strange in language. In regular speech, the number of words is only dependent on the meaning the speaker wants to express. (But there are a few usages of language where this is normal! Can you think of them? The answer is at the bottom of the blog!)

The second aspect of Sabar that is more like music than language is that the Sabar drum is never used to convey meaning by itself. Instead, it is always played to reflect the meaning of the poem or song that it accompanies. In fact, because of the strong family traditions in the schooling of the musicians, each family may have a different vocabulary for Sabar, making communication on the basis of drumming alone difficult.

Is Sabar, the heartbeat of Senegal, music, or is it a language? Well, it’s a bit of both. Sabar drumming functions as a style of music, but it is much closer to a real language than other drum languages. And this is exactly what makes these speaking drums such a fascinating linguistic phenomenon.

ANSWER: In which usages of language does the number of words in a sentence matter? Poetry, rap, and lyrics to other styles of music.

Read further
Winter, Y. (2014). On the grammar of a senegalese drum language. Language 90(3), 644-668.
Ros, S. (2021). Rhythm-speech correlations in a corpus of Senegalese drum language. Front. Commun. 6(July).
Winter, Y. (s.d.). Sabar: The drum language of Senegal (website).

Writer: Sophie Slaats
Editors: Cecilia Hustá
Dutch translation: Julia von der Fuhr
German translation: Ronny Bujok
Final editing: Eva Poort