Borderline encounters with voice. A study of the pre-history of bioacoustics at the cutting edge of science, media technology and literature around 1800 and 1900

Division and unification are two contrary effects of the same agent: the voice. Human language is deeply connected to it. The voice is often considered to be a defining feature of an anthropological difference that sets human beings apart from other life forms. And yet, the ability to have a voice is by no means exclusive to humans. Nonhuman animals and some machines are also capable of vocalization. On the verge between the corporeal and the intelligible, of natural sounds and linguistic cultures, the voice occupies a contested terrain. This dissertation project explores this terrain from a historical-systematical perspective, departing from the so-called Sattelzeiten around 1800 and 1900 (as well as their lasting impact on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries) when the the way in which the voice was perceived experienced a significant shift.

The time around 1800 saw the development of new techniques and methods to synthesize voice and language. By demonstrating the possibility of isolating the voice from the human body, these methods challenged the belief in the voice as a unique feature of human existence. In a second step, they questioned the use of voice as proof of an existing anthropological difference. At that time, newly emerging discourses on the origin of language opened up new ways of understanding voice and language as features existing beyond human cultures. As a result, the question of the difference between human, animal, and machine voice formation was raised at the intersection between physiology, anatomy, technology, philosophy of language, and literature. The years around 1900 mark another turning point in the perception of the voice. At that time, new media technologies such as microphones and phonographs provided access to the soundscapes of animals in unprecedented ways. These recordings became a part of the contemporary discourse on the evolutionary interrelatedness of human and nonhuman animals. Phonographic experiments with animals investigated whether animals also used a rudimentary form of language and how human language could have developed from animal voices. Both around 1800 and 1900, the debates and experiments were embedded in a culture of hearing that took a notable interest in sounds of nature outside of the sonic spectrum that is only audible or recognizable for humans.

The thesis presents six key moments in the history of the voice, introducing its central agents, practices, and narratives. Together, these key moments form a prehistory of bioacoustics. Only in the 1950s did bioacoustics become a proper subdiscipline of biology, fostering the systematic investigation of animal sounds. As this dissertation shows, the beginnings of bioacoustics date back at least to the 18th century. Back then, animal voice research was not yet an established area of research of natural science, but a fervidly contested space of possibilities that was equally occupied by anthropologists and literary figures, machine technicians, and physiologists. Their debates were fueled by methodological and epistemic challenges that they faced during the exploration of animal sounds around 1800 and 1900, each time under different circumstances. At the same time, these challenges contributed to the progressive differentiation of bioacoustics as an independent branch of research. By paying attention to these various strands of bioacoustics avant la lettre, this dissertation aims to raise awareness for animal sounds in cultural and scientific research. It also promotes the cultural studies of bioacoustics.

ZfL Doctoral Fellowship 2014–2016
Head researcher(s): Denise Reimann


Denise Reimann

Auftakte der Bioakustik
Zur Wissensgeschichte nichtmenschlicher Stimmen um 1800 und 1900

de Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2022, 461 pages
ISBN 978-3-1107-2666-4 (Print); 978-3-1107-2765-4 (E-Book)
Marianne Sommer, Denise Reimann (ed./eds.)

Zwitschern, Bellen, Röhren
Tierlaute in der Wissens-, Medientechnik- und Musikgeschichte

Neofelis Verlag, Berlin 2018, 242 pages
ISBN 978-3-95808-230-4

Denise Reimann

  • Grillenspiele. Untersuchungen zum Lautverhalten von Insekten im frühen 20. Jahrhundert, in: Sophia Gräfe, Georg Toepfer (eds.): Wissensgeschichte des Verhaltens. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven. Berlin: de Gruyter 2023 (forthcoming)
  • Tierstimmen. Literarische Erkundungen einer liminalen Sprache, in: Colleen M. Schmitz, Judith Elisabeth Weiss (eds.): Sprache. Ein Lesebuch von A bis Z. Perspektiven aus Literatur, Forschung und Gesellschaft. Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung Sprache am DHM Dresden (24 Sep 2016 – 20 Aug 2017). Göttingen: Wallstein 2016, 230–233
  • “Ein an sich kaum hörbares Zischen.” Kafka und die Tierphonographie um 1900, in: Harald Neumeyer, Wilko Steffens (eds.): Kafkas Tiere. Kulturwissenschaftliche Lektüren (Forschungen der deutschen Kafka-Gesellschaft 3). Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann 2015, 421–444
  • “Recording Type: T.” On the Recordings of Animal Voices in the Berlin Sound Archive, in: Trajekte 29 (2014), 55–62
  • Geräusch, Gebrüll, in: Roland Borgards, Marc Klesse, Alexander Kling (eds.): Robinsons Tiere (Cultural and Literary Animal Studies 1). Freiburg: Rombach Verlag 2015, 53


27 Nov 2015 – 28 Nov 2015

Zirpen, Bellen und Trompeten. Tierlaute in der Medien-, Literatur- und Wissensgeschichte

Universität Luzern, Frohburgstr. 3, 6002 Luzern (Schweiz) Hörsaal 8

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Media Response

22 Nov 2023
Auftakte der Bioakustik. Zur Wissensgeschichte nichtmenschlicher Stimmen um 1800 und 1900

Review by Pamela Steen, in: Zeitschrift für Rezensionen zur germanistischen Sprachwissenschaft (2023)