Whistled Language

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." (ibid: 32)

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 12 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:


Whistled Language Wikipedia

Africa: Herders' Whistled Language Shows Brain's Flexibility

January 5, 2005 - National Geographic

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.

"Science has developed the idea of brain areas that are dedicated to language, and we are starting to understand the scope of signals that can be recognized as language," said David Corina, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Silbo Gomero is a substitute for Spanish, with individual words recoded into whistles. Vowels and consonants are replaced by tones that are whistled at different frequencies. ("Silbo" comes from the Spanish "silbar" -to whistle.)

Known as silbadores, the whistlers of Gomera are traditionally shepherds and other isolated mountain folk. Their novel means of staying in touch allows them to communicate over long distances - Silbador whistles can travel up to six miles (ten kilometers). "Spanish consonants are mapped into four different whistles and the five vowels into two whistles," explained lead researcher Manuel Carreiras, psychology professor at the University of La Laguna on the Canary island of Tenerife. "There is much more ambiguity in the whistled signal than in the spoken signal," he added.

Because whistled "words" can be hard to distinguish, silbadores also rely on repetition and context to make themselves understood.

Brain Activity

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.

The researchers found that other regions in the brain's frontal lobe also responded to the whistles, including those activated in response to sign language among deaf people. However, brain areas activated in experienced Silbadores differed significantly from those in nonwhistlers who listened to the same sounds but could not understand them. "Our results provide more evidence about the flexibility of human capacity for language in a variety of forms," Corina said. "These data suggest that left-hemisphere language regions are uniquely adapted for communicative purposes, independent of the modality of signal. The non-Silbo speakers were not recognizing Silbo as a language. They had nothing to grab onto, so multiple areas of their brains were activated."

Carreiras said silbadores are able to pass a surprising amount of information via their whistles. "The shepherds could whistle a conversation about relativity theory if they wanted, however, they usually talk about other things," he said. "In daily life they use whistles to communicate short commands, but any Spanish sentence could be whistled."

A silbador sticks a finger in his or her mouth to increase the whistle's pitch. The other hand can be cupped like a megaphone to direct the sound.

African Roots

Carreiras says the origins of Silbo Gomero remain obscure but that indigenous Canary Islanders, who were of North African extraction, already had a whistled language when Spain conquered the volcanic islands in the 15th century.

Whistled languages survive today in Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Vietnam, Guyana, China, Nepal, Senegal, and a few mountainous pockets in southern Europe. There are thought to be as many as 70 whistled languages still in use, though only 12 have been described and studied scientifically.

This form of communication is an adaptation found among cultures where people are often isolated from each other, according to Julien Meyer, a researcher at the Institute of Human Sciences in Lyon, France. "They are mostly used in mountains or dense forests," he said.

Whistled languages, Meyer said, "are quite clearly defined and represent an original adaptation of the spoken language - like a local cellular phone - for the needs of isolated human groups."

But with modern communication technologies now widely available, researchers say whistled languages like Silbo Gomero are threatened with extinction.

"It was a way of communication over deep valleys and steep mountains," Carreiras said. "Now you can do that with cell phones."

With dwindling numbers of Gomera islanders still fluent in the language, Canaries authorities are taking steps to try to ensure its survival.

Since 1999 Silbo Gomero has been taught in all of Gomera's elementary schools. In addition, locals are seeking assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"The local authorities are trying to get an award from UNESCO to declare [Silbo Gomero] as something that should be preserved for humanity," Carreiras added.