Give a Little Whistle: Exploring Whistled Languages Around the World

Speech and signs aren’t the only registers of language.

“Different ways to whistle with your fingers” — Le Monde Illustré, 1893. Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LeMondeSiffler.jpg.

One thing I could do at 17 that I was proud of is speak French and Spanish. As I studied for exams in both languages, it soon became apparent to me that this was more than just another subject. This was something that would open doors to me to other languages throughout my life. Yet, little did I think the ability to whistle would also do so.

By Akalvin — fotografiert 1991 auf La Gomera, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25165234

Have you ever heard of a ‘whistled language’?

Across the globe, from Turkey to Mexico and Papua New Guinea to west Africa, whistled languages have been documented.

Despite the diverse places whistled languages exist, it’s quite a small club, and one we’ll be looking at closer in this article.

It may seem as if there’s little room for variety when it comes to a whistled language. How do you create enough words for communication and then distinguish them from each other with what appears on the surface to be just pitch?

To take a closer look at whistled languages, let’s start with a visit to the Canary Islands.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=201979

Despite being part of Spain, the Canary Islands actually lie closer to the coast of Northwest Africa. The four biggest islands, Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote and Gran Canaria are hugely popular holiday destinations for sun-hungry Europeans, and are packed with resorts boasting fancy pools and restaurants offering English menus. But head a little further west and you reach La Gomera, one of the lesser visited islands of the seven in total.

There may be much less tourism on the island than the majority of its neighbours, but that doesn’t mean the island is any less interesting, especially from a linguistic point of view. La Gomera is home to one of the world’s handful of whistled languages: El Silbo Gomero.

One of the first things to know about Silbo Gomero is that it technically already had a full and rich vocabulary — it is a whistled register of Spanish. How does this work? You can try this yourself if you speak Spanish or any other language. Go ahead and position your mouth as if ready to say words, but whistle them instead. This is the essence of Silbo Gomero: whistling the words instead of pronouncing the words as you would expect.

If you tried this just now, you may have understood what you were saying because, well, you were saying it so you knew what it was. But now imagine someone else whistled that to you. Would you understand what they were saying?

Did you ever mime the words ‘elephant juice’ to your crush at junior school to see how they reacted when they thought you were telling them secretly that you loved them? (Try it — the movement of your lips when you mime ‘elephant juice’ really looks like ‘I love you’) These things are easily misunderstood, surely? Why would people whistle a language when they can already speak it clearly?

To help answer that last question, let’s start by taking a look at La Gomera.

By Till Niermann (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a very naturally beautiful place. Oh, and it’s mountainous. The valleys and curves of the landscapes lend themselves well to taking the strong sound of a whistle and transporting it further than a weak shout. This was a very useful method of communication for agricultural workers, which is presumed to be one of the reasons for its development.

Before the arrival of the telephone and ease of transportation, using Silbo was a very effective way to communicate with people up to 5 kilometres away. Although it’s often referred to as a ‘whistled register’ of Spanish, even before the arrival of Spanish on the island (and other Canary Islands), Silbo existed as a whistled form of the original language of the islands, Guanche, which, other than the fact that some linguists believe it to have been an Afro-Asiatic language, little is known about. It is worth noting however, that the name ‘silbo’ comes from the verb’ silbar’, meaning ‘to whistle’ in Spanish.

Nowadays, Silbo Gomero plays a role in everyday life on the island. It’s taught in schools, it’s considered as a big part of the cultural heritage on the island (even earning it the status of ‘Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO), and it’s used as a draw for the relatively small tourism industry, such as displays of Silbo Gomero between waiters, as you can see in this video.

Of course, as you can probably tell, knowing Spanish doesn’t just mean that you can instantly speak Silbo Gomero. The language may have just two vowels and four consonants (identified as such via different pitch), yet despite this, the physical requirements to speak the language make it quite complex to learn. Silbo Gomero requires a little more than just the playful whistle we’re used to. The hands and fingers also play a key role in getting the pitch and length of each whistle just right as the fingers are inserted just inside the mouth for certain whistles.

But what about those other whistled languages around the world that we mentioned earlier? How similar are they to Silbo Gomero?

It’s interesting to note that Silbo Gomero appears to be the most documented of all whistled languages, despite the fact that there are many others documented across the world. Such as the communication used between Mazateco speakers in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico, observed by linguist G. M. Cowan (Cowan, G. M., 1948).

Cowan notes that “Eusebio Martinez was […] one day standing in front of his hut, whistling to a man a considerable distance away. […] They had talked, bargained over the price, and come to an agreement satisfactory to both parties — using only whistles as a medium of communication.”

Later studies from linguist Dr. Mark A. Sicoli conducted in Sochiapam in the north of the State with the whistled speech of Chinantec found that although the majority of speech can be whistled, speakers can’t whistle everything they can say in their native spoken language. That language, and the whistled speech of it, being very localised, with speakers in the study claiming that their whistled speech is “softer” than that of those in neighbouring villages. A further interesting point to note here is that although women understand whistled speech, it is only used by men.

This documentary is a great introduction to the whistled speech Sicoli researched and studied.

Whistled speech only being used by men is an observation that is common across most whistled languages, according to D. Crystal.

However, despite inaccuracies such as stating there are only 4 whistled languages and no others in Western Europe, this footage of the inhabitants of Aas in the French Pyrenees, clearly shows a woman whistling to her husband. The last speaker of the whistled language in Aas, Anne Netou Palas, died in 1999, however recently, Philippe Biu developed a course syllabus at Pau University in the region alongside M. Pucheu, who was inspired by the revival efforts he saw firsthand with Silbo Gomero.

They make it clear that this is not a revival effort, but they are “simply seeking to pass on the techniques used by the now dead whistlers” with the aim that students can “make use of it as they wish in today’s environment.”

So how well do whistled languages fare in ‘today’s environment’? Pucheu gives the example of mountain rescue teams working with little to no mobile phone signal.

But if we head across to Alaska, where the Yupik people of St Lawrence Island also whistle the Yupik language, we find a very practical example given. Much like the regions where we find Silbo Gomero, Sochiapam, and Aas, the location of the Yupik community is remote and not easily accessible. However, unlike Silbo Gomero, which is now being taught in schools, the whistled speech here is not taught but picked up from being “just around them”, as one speaker shares in a discussion with NPR. In this discussion, she also shares a story about her grandfather visiting her in Anchorage from St Lawrence Island and getting lost in Wal-Mart. The speaker was able to whistle to her grandfather to find him easily.

Crystal also points out that whistled languages are most commonly used across distances, as we have seen here with the examples so far.

This appears to be proved once more by the whistled communication known to locals as ‘Kuş dili’, which translates as ‘bird language’, in the Turkish village of Kuşköy, which, as you may have guessed, translates to ‘bird village’. Another similarity to other whistled languages we have looked at so far is that it is a whistled ‘dialect’ of the local language, in this case Turkish.

Although use of Kuş dili has been in decline for a number of years now due to modernisation, including the arrival of mobile phones, the locals are clearly proud of their heritage associated with the whistled speech, as demonstrated by the annual festival they hold to promote the language. The festival includes whistling demonstrations and competitions, but does not reach a wide audience, with visitors to the event in 2012 being primarily from the local area. This video shares a glimpse of the festival in Kuşköy.

So, given everything we’ve learnt so far, we have to ask ourselves the question: are whistled languages…well, languages?

In all known cases, the whistled language may be more accurately called a register, a variation, or even a dialect of a language that is also used in a spoken form that we’d expect to hear. The term “whistled language” is almost short-form for “whistled register of a language”.

This is very clearly described by researchers at UCL:

“Whistled languages are not distinct from spoken languages and there is no case of a whistled language which is not based on some spoken language. Whistled speech always relies on a spoken language. It does not replace but rather accompanies spoken language and the two are used in different occasions.”

When we consider that, it seems logical then how such a number of whistled languages have developed in such distant places across the globe. Whistled languages, such as they have been documented, are not discrete languages in their own right, but rather language varieties evolved for the specific purpose of communicating across long distances.

Although I’m pretty proud that I eventually got the whistling down, I’m not sure just how long it would take me, or you, to learn how to communicate in a whistled language. The technique used to get the pitch of the whistle to a point that would help it to travel across valleys takes plenty of practise. Still, with languages across the globe that make use of whistling, it seems that maybe whistling isn’t such a useless skill after all.