Why shout, when you can whistle? Whistled languages around the world
November 29, 2013 7:44 AM   Subscribe

The Panamanian golden frog that lives near loud waterfalls and the people of both Kuşköy (a small village in Turkey) and La Gomera (an island off the coast of Morocco) have something in common: creative communication in challenging situations. Where the golden frogs communicate by waving, the people of Kuşköy and La Gomera overcome difficult terrain by whistling. The Turkish people call their language "kuș dili" or "bird langage," as it originated in Kuşköy, which itself means "bird village," and the Silbo Gomero language is so organized and thorough that every vowel and consonant can be replaced with a whistle.

In Turkey, cell phones and larger cities are threatening the future of kuș dili, so annual cultural festivals are held to celebrate the whistled language and other local traditions, though the focus has shifted to music and dancing in recent years. Meanwhile, on the small island of La Gomera, Silbo Gomero is kept alive in the local schools.

If you'd like to know more about whistled languages, here is The Village that Whistles, a 21 minute documentary on La Gomera, via University College London's page on Whistled Languages, and Whistles in the Mist: Whistled Speech in Oaxaca, via Open Culture. For further information and distraction, here is the Wikipedia page on whistled language.
posted by filthy light thief (15 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wonder if they can recognize a person's whistle or if occasionally you'll hear an anonymous whistle saying that Bob fucks his goats.
posted by stavrogin at 8:24 AM on November 29, 2013


Excellent post.

I wonder what it would be like in some alternate universe where whistle languages grew to be the dominant form of language.

Is it possible to whistle with a regional accent?
posted by Jacob Knitig at 8:26 AM on November 29, 2013


YESSSSS GOLDEN FROG YES YES YES
posted by Greg Nog at 8:45 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


We had a book on the indigenous languages of Latin America once that had a whole chapter on the whistling languages of Mexico. It was written by several linguists from the Summer Institute for Linguistics, which is one of those religious organizations that goes around translating the bible into different languages, often creating an alphabet and grammar rules, and whatever else you need in a written language.

There are quite a few regional whistling languages in Southern Mexico, mostly in Oaxaca and Yucatan. Anyway, like this language, whistled languages in Oaxaca are used as a secondary language for long-distance communication. A big part of what makes them work is that there is built-in redundancy and very low ambiguity in the language. So when I read "Silbo Gomero language is so organized and thorough that every vowel and consonant can be replaced with a whistle", it was a bit of a red flag. I know that comes straight from the article, but it's really not accurate. The Wikipedia article on whistled languages says that Different researchers have determined that there are between 3-5 vowels and 4-9 consonants in Silbo Gomero.

Jacob Knitig: Is it possible to whistle with a regional accent?

Sure. Even ASL, which is taught to children by professionals (vs learning from parents/community) has regional differences.
posted by KGMoney at 8:48 AM on November 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


[waves]
posted by zippy at 9:19 AM on November 29, 2013


WRT regional accents, now that I've watched the Oaxaca video, at around 19 minutes, one of the whistlers mentions how they end a sentence in their town with a specific tone, but in another town, they end a sentence differently, and it sounds rough to him.

Also, at 11 minutes, they talk about limitations to the language, and that they can't communicate everything through whistling, and that some things are contextual to location.

This is really cool stuff. Thanks for posting it, FLT
posted by KGMoney at 9:20 AM on November 29, 2013


The Piraha detailed in Don't Sleep There Are Snakes can hum, whistle, or sing their language. It's a pretty wacky, forcefully non-recursive language, actually.

It is a language. A language is wacky. The wacky is few. They are the same language.
posted by womandad at 9:34 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I kind of love the old Silbo Gomero lady in the busuu.com video who makes fun of people talking on cell phones by putting a saucepan up to her head and yammering. "Computers are a disease!" she says.

One of the Silbo Gomero speakers says it's now a required subject in school, which is great. I wonder, though -- personally, I cannot whistle, and I'm not the only person I know who says this. I've only ever made a whistling noise when I was sick and something inside my head was blocked up. For a kid like me, Silbo Gomero lessons would be like constantly failing at PE, except with a real grade.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:43 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


For a kid like me, Silbo Gomero lessons would be like constantly failing at PE, except with a real grade.

"I do hereby certify that Countess Elena should be excused from Silbo Gomero lessons today. Due to her persistent good health, her head isn't blocked up and so she cannot whistle."
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:58 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a great post, filthy light thief; a useful reminder of what a fascinating place the world is.
posted by Zeinab Badawi's Twenty Hotels at 10:14 AM on November 29, 2013


Henceforth, I shall cease all vocal utterances and communicate by slow wave, wolf whistle or flipping the bird.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:18 AM on November 29, 2013


Yes, but what do you mean when you flip me the bird?
posted by filthy light thief at 11:22 AM on November 29, 2013


Yes, but what do you mean when you flip me the bird?

[hypnotically slow jedi-wave]
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:34 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thank you FLT. A truly beautiful post. As a linguist, I do wonder what got excluded, when the scientific study of language got its modern form. It seems as if much that is truly linguistic was excluded. The world is more various, and human experience and communality is more expansive than we can ever imagine. I'm reminded of the lines of Louis Mac Niece

I peel and portion a tangerine, and spit the pips,
and feel the drunkenness of things being various
posted by stonepharisee at 2:06 PM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Great post. Thanks, filthy light thief.
posted by homunculus at 11:53 PM on November 30, 2013


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