What’s in a whistle? Entire worlds, for one. When we whistle to pass the time or to get someone’s attention, we’re kind of wasting our potential. For millennia and in just about every region of the world, humans have been conducting complex conversations through whistled languages, and these “bird languages” may even be an important indicator of how human language originated.
What’s Up With Whistled Languages?
As far back as the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus described cave-dwelling Ethiopians whose “speech is like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats.”
Whistled languages have historically almost always originated in remote, mountainous villages or dense forests, where environmental conditions required a method of communication that could travel over long distances. Whistles don’t echo as much as shouts, which means they’re less likely to get distorted or scare away potential prey. They also require less exertion on the part of the speaker, and they can travel up to 10 kilometers (just over 6 miles) in some cases, which is many times farther than shouts, thanks to the narrow, high-pitched frequency of the sound. There are as many as 70 of these languages in total.
Julien Meyer, a researcher at the University of Grenoble in France, has studied whistled languages extensively, and he hypothesizes that whistling might have been a precursor to spoken language. This is not altogether different from a theory proposed by Charles Darwin that singing and whistling both formed a sort of “musical protolanguage.”
One thing that’s important to understand about whistled languages is that they’re always based on the local spoken language. According to Meyer, regions of the world where “tonal” languages exist, like in Asia, tend to produce whistled languages that replicate the melodies of the spoken sentences. Other languages, like Spanish and Turkish, produce whistled versions that imitate the various changes in resonance that accompany different vowel sounds, with consonants conveyed by abrupt shifts from note to note.
Additionally, whistled tongues have revealed surprising information about the way our brain processes language. It has been traditionally understood that the left hemisphere does most of the work when it comes to processing language — at least in the “traditional” sense of the word. As it turns out, recent studies have suggested that whistled languages are handled equally by both hemispheres.
Most interesting of all, though, are the very human stories they tell — from the Canary Islands to the Amazon, the Laotian highlands, the Atlas Mountains, Papua New Guinea, the Bering Strait, the Pyrenees, and back again.
Kuşköy’s Bird Language
Up in the mountains of Northern Turkey, in the Çanakçı district of Giresun, there’s a single village, Kuşköy, where whistled languages still persist (to a degree). Though the bird language had once been prevalent throughout the mountainous region, it’s mostly spoken only by shepherds today, and text messaging has threatened its total extinction.
No longer passed down to younger generations, most living speakers are aging. Among the youth who do learn it, it’s more often the men who learn it as a matter of pride. Kuşköy still maintains an annual Bird Language Festival.
Turkey’s “bird language” was recently recognized by UNESCO and added to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
In the small village of Antia, tucked away on the inclines of Mount Ochi on the Greek island of Evia, the residents whistle a language known as sfyria. For thousands of years, the language has been passed down through the generations of shepherds and farmers. According to some residents, the language either came from Persian soldiers hiding in the mountains roughly 2,500 years ago, or from the Byzantine era, when locals needed a cryptic way to warn each other of danger. Some say that whistlers from Antia would act as sentries in the times of ancient Athens to warn of attack against the empire.
The story of sfyria is similar to the story of Turkey’s bird language, in that the remaining speakers are all aging out, in some cases losing their teeth (and their ability to make the sounds). Today, with only six people on the planet who can speak the language, it is one of the most endangered in the world.
The word “sfyria” comes from the Greek sfyrizo, or “whistle,” but its use transcends the needs of empire and agriculture. One resident told the following story to the BBC: “One night, a man was in the mountains with his sheep when it started snowing. He knew that somewhere deep in the mountains there was a beautiful girl from Antia with her goats. So he found a cave, built a fire and whistled to her to come keep warm. She did, and that’s how my parents fell in love.”
In the above documentary, Dr. Mark Sicoli, assistant professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, studies the whistled Chinantec language.
San Pedro Sochiapam’s Chinantec
In Oaxaca, Mexico, the village of San Pedro Sochiapam is where the Chinantec people live among mountainside cornfields and hilly footpaths.
The Chinantec language, which has been around since pre-Hispanic times, can account for past and future tense and reach distances of up to 1 kilometer (about two-thirds of a mile). Whistling was also used in supplement to other Mesoamerican languages, like Mazatec, Zapotec and Mixtec.
But here, as with everywhere else, the need for whistled language is declining, which means there is only a handful of people left who are still proficient in this tongue. This is partly owing to a lack of interest among younger generations, but also partly to a decline in coffee production, which once made up more than 30 percent of the state’s exports. That, and people seem more inclined to use cellphones and walkie-talkies these days.
La Gomera’s Silbo
In the Canary Islands of Spain, whistled language is said to have originated among the North African inhabitants prior to the arrival of the first European settlers in the 15th century. When the Spanish came, the natives adapted their whistling language to more closely resemble Spanish.
Back in the day, when whistling was a matter of necessity, the locals would whistle to each other to avoid the Guardia Civil, who would come to pick them up when the mountain caught fire, often using them as unpaid labor to extinguish the blaze. Though Silbo slowly began to die out after the ’50s, a renewed interest arrived by the late ’90s thanks to a move to make it a required subject at primary school.
UNESCO’s short documentary on the Silbo language of La Gomera.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, the H’mong people use whistled language in farming and hunting contexts, but they also use it as a form of courtship.
Though rarely deployed in this manner nowadays, the whistled language would be used by boys who wandered through nearby villages in the past, whistling their favorite poems. In some cases, a girl might respond, and the two might begin flirting with each other in this manner.
According to the BBC, the romance of this ritual is heightened by the fact that whistling is much more anonymous than speaking, and some couples might create their own personal codes (like Pig Latin, but for whistling). This creates a sense of privacy in what is otherwise a very public exchange.