Whistled language is a form of communication that uses the existing words in a language, which are approximated in a whistled form, and retains most of the original acoustic information – like pitch and sentence stress – present in spoken language.
A number of different whistled languages exist around the world, usually in communities that live within a high level of isolation. In places as far flung as the Brazilian rainforest, mountainous Oaxaca, Mexico, the Canary Islands, and the Black Sea coast of Turkey, we find languages that sound more like the speech of birds than of humans.
Whistles can be understood as far as ten kilometers away from the whistler, allowing the signal to carry much farther than spoken language. The region in Turkey where Onur Güntürkün, a biopsycholinguist, conducts research, has the typical topography that favors the use of whistled language. “When you’re living there, you recognize why it’s a good landscape for whistled Turkish,” he said. “It’s a very mountainous region, very steep with deep valleys, and to communicate with your neighbors, you have to climb down and up again.” Whistling, on the other hand, allows you to communicate easily with someone on the other side of the valley.
In addition to the core tenet of UNESCO to keep disappearing elements of humanity’s cultural values alive, interest in the study of whistled languages has grown recently for a number of reasons. From psycholinguists attempting to determine what areas in the brain are involved in language communication to more thoroughly map the workings of the human mind, to sociolinguists studying the effects of technology on culture, whistled language research is now becoming supported.
Silbo Gomero, the language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands) having almost died out, was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. The language is taught once more in schools and there are now about 22,000 users of what they call the bird language.
Mobile phones have obviously had an impact on whistled language, and they now dominate communication as they do everywhere else. The bird language is rapidly disappearing from daily life. In a small town filled with nosy neighbors, texting affords a level of privacy that whistling never did. The result has been an overhaul of the social structure surrounding whistling. It used to be used across the entire population. Now that it has been partially supplanted by technology, whistling has more to do with pride in local culture and maintenance of tradition.
The opportunities to study whistled languages will diminish in the years to come, as cell phones take over their function and more of their speakers lose regional distinctiveness. But the work of researchers may have fascinating implications for linguists as well, creating further connections between speech and music—and perhaps even between the speech of humans and that of other animals.
Whistled languages seem to have naturally focused on key elements of language to transmit the essential part of linguistic information. Bird languages can be seen as phonetical descriptions of local languages; whistling has adapted from one language to another, researchers have discovered. As translators, we wonder whether there are fluent whistlers working as translators.
Enjoy these samples of Whistled Languages* from The World Whistles Research Association
*you may need to hit the play button twice.