Whistled Languages

Whistled languages are a form of communication used by many indigenous people around the world. The languages differs according to whether the spoken language is tonal or not, with the whistling being either tone or articulation based. Tonal languages are stripped of articulation, leaving only suprasegmental features such as duration and tone, and when whistled retain the spoken melodic line. In non-tonal languages, some of the articulatory features of speech are retained, though the normally timbral variations imparted by the movements of the tongue and soft palate are transformed into pitch variations.

Thus whistled languages convey phonemic information solely through tone, length, and, to a lesser extent, stress, and many phonemic distinctions of the spoken language are lost. All whistled languages share one basic characteristic: they function by varying the frequency of a simple wave-form as a function of time, generally with minimal dynamic variation, which is readily understandable since in most cases their only purpose is long-distance communication.

Languages communicated by whistling are relatively rare, but are known from around the world. One example is the Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, which maintains Spanish's five vowels, but reduces its consonants down to four. Others exist or existed in all parts of the world including Turkey (Kuskoy "Village of the Birds"), France (the village of Aas in the Pyrenees), Mexico (the Zapotecs of Oaxaca), South America (Piraha), Asia (the Chepang of Nepal), and New Guinea. They are especially common and robust today in parts of West Africa, used widely in such populous languages as Yoruba and Ewe. Even French is whistled in some areas of western Africa.

In continental Africa, speech may be conveyed by a whistle or other musical instrument, most famously the "talking drums". However, while drums may be used by griots singing praise songs or for inter-village communication, and other instruments may be used on the radio for station identification jingles, for regular conversation at a distance whistled speech is used. As two people approach each other, one may even switch from whistled to spoken speech in mid-sentence.

In the Greek village of Antia, the entire population knows how to whistle their speech, and whistled conversations are also carried on at close range.

As the expressivity of whistled speech is limited compared to spoken speech, whistled messages typically consist of stereotyped or otherwise standardized or set expressions, are elaborately descriptive, and often have to be repeated.

However, in languages which are heavily tonal, and therefore convey much of their information through pitch even when spoken, such as Mazatec and Yoruba, extensive conversations may be whistled.

In Africa and indigenous Mexican communities, whistled language is used only by men.

Whistled languages are normally found and used in locations with abrupt relief created by difficult mountainous terrain, slow or difficult communication (no telephones), low population density and/or scattered settlements, and other isolating features such as sheepherding and cultivation of hillsides.

The main advantage of whistling speech is that it allows the speaker to cover much larger distances (typically 1–2 km but up to 5 km) than ordinary speech, and this is assisted by the relief found in areas where whistled languages are used. In practice, many areas with such languages work hard to preserve their ancient traditions, in the face of rapidly advancing telecommunications systems in many areas.

A whistled tone is essentially a simple oscillation (or sine wave), and thus timbral variations are impossible. Normal articulation during an ordinary lip-whistle is relatively easy though the lips move little causing a constant of labialization and making labial and labiodental consonants (p, b, m, f, etc.) impossible.

Apart from the five vowel-phonemes - and even these do not invariably have a fixed or steady pitch - all whistled speech-sound realizations are glides which are interpreted in terms of range, contour, and steepness.

In a non-tonal language, segments may be differentiated as follows:

In the case of Silbo Gomero, such strategies produce five vowels and four consonants.

Though whistled languages are not secret codes or secret languages, with the exception of a whistled language used by nanigos terrorists in Cuba during Spanish occupation, they may be used for secretive communication among outsiders or other who do not know or understand the whistled language though they may understand its spoken origin. Supposedly, in Aas during World War II farmers were nearly caught watering down their milk but police were unable to find any evidence as the farmers were warned by whistled messages of the police approaching and were able to prepare. There are similar stories of La Gomera

List is of languages that exist or existed in a whistled form, or of ethnic groups that speak such languages:

Read more

In the News ...

'Whistled Languages' Reveal How the Brain Processes Information   Scientific American - November 22, 2016

Before electronic communications became a ubiquitous part of people's lives, rural villagers created whistled versions of their native languages to speak from hillside to hillside or even house to house. Herodotus mentioned whistled languages in the fourth book of his work The Histories, but until recently linguists had done little research on the sounds and meanings of this now endangered form of communication. New investigations have discovered the presence of whistled speech all over the globe. About 70 populations worldwide communicate this way, a far greater number than the dozen or so groups that had been previously identified. Linguists have tried to promote interest in these languages - and schools in the Canary Islands now teach its local variant. A whistled language represents both a cultural heritage and a way to study how the brain processes information.

  The Secret Of The Strange Whistling Language Of Turkey   Huffington Post - August 19, 2015

It's called the "bird language" because it sounds, well, like the whistle of birds. But make no mistake about it: the whistling language used by villagers in one part of Turkey is a very real and complex human language. While the people of Kuskoy -- aka "Bird Village" -- speak Turkish up close, they switch to whistling to communicate over the vast distances of their community. If you look at the topography, it is clear how handy whistled communication is. You can't articulate as loud as you can whistle, so whistled language can be heard kilometers away across steep canyons and high mountains. The whistling is based on Turkish, with each sound representing a syllable.

Bizarre ‘Bird Village' in Turkey features people who whistle to each other   National Monitor - August 18, 2015

Deep in the mountains of Turkey lies the strange village of Kuskoy, where people communicate ... by whistling.The whistling is so loud throughout the area you would swear it was surrounded by birds, hence its nickname 'Bird Village', but these are people making these noises, and they''re doing it to communicate with each other, according to a Washington Post report. It's one of the only places on Earth where a complex system of whistles serves as a primary form of communication, and it is providing new insights into how scientists understand how the brain interprets language

Languages that communicate through Whistles - When Sounds have Meanings   Fiboni - November 10, 2014

The form of communication constituting whistles is used by various indigenous people in the world and is termed as whistled languages. The language tends to vary in terms of the tonal nature of the spoken language with the whistling being based either on articulation or tone. In many cases, the tonal languages are stripped of articulation, leaving behind suprasegmental features like tone and duration, and when whistled retain the spoken melodic line. In non-tonal variations of language, a few of the articulatory speech figures retained though the usual timbral variations imparted by the movements of the soft palate and the tongue are transformed into pitch variations.

Africa: Herders' Whistled Language Shows Brain's Flexibility   National Geographic - January 5, 2005
Shepherds who whistle to each other across the rocky terrain of the Canary Islands off northwest Africa are shedding light on the language-processing abilities of the human brain, according to scientists. Researchers say the endangered whistled "language'" of Gomera island activates parts of the brain normally associated with spoken language, suggesting that the brain is remarkably flexible in its ability to interpret sounds as language. The study team used neuroimaging equipment to contrast the brain activity of silbadores while listening to whistled and spoken Spanish. Results showed the left temporal lobe of the brain, which is usually associated with spoken language, was engaged during the processing of Silbo Gomero.

Language of the Birds