“Their speech is like no other in the world:"
February 7, 2018 1:05 PM   Subscribe

On a small Greek island, practitioners of an ancient whistling language are holding onto their culture as it slowly dies out.
Antia is home to the last whistlers of Greece. Sfyria, as the whistling language is called in Greek — it comes from the Greek word sfyrizo, to whistle — is not technically a language; linguists refer to it as a speech registrar, like shouting or whispering. It’s the same as modern Greek — the grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure all remain intact — but the sounds come out in high-pitched musical notes. Each letter of the alphabet is individually whistled (alpha, beta, gamma), and strung together to create an ariose warble.
posted by the man of twists and turns (7 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
Apart from the post, which is typically excellent, I learned a new word:

Ariose, something characterised by its melodic nature. The whistles that are "strung together to create an ariose warble" are melodic, not merely transposed into a different speech register.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:22 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


Fascinating. I, however, could never whistle, and after learning of this language, that makes me rather sad. Imagine the uses in crowded malls!
posted by annieb at 3:19 PM on February 7


That's interesting. So two questions: When they say they whistle the letters, do they mean they're basically whistle-spelling words or do they mean that the whistle includes each sound in the word.

Second, are those whistle noises just the actual letter sound somehow "pronounced" differently? That's what I would take "register" to mean. Like you took the audio file could you lower the tone and do some other transformation that would somehow get you words (or letters) understandable to a Greek speaker? Or is it more like morse code but with whistles: this kind of whistle represents that sound/letter, this kind of whistle represents that sound/letter, etc.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:12 PM on February 7


Second, are those whistle noises just the actual letter sound somehow "pronounced" differently? That's what I would take "register" to mean. Like you took the audio file could you lower the tone and do some other transformation that would somehow get you words (or letters) understandable to a Greek speaker? Or is it more like morse code but with whistles: this kind of whistle represents that sound/letter, this kind of whistle represents that sound/letter, etc.

Sort of both.

Whistle registers are more commonly found in tonal languages. It's analogous to those "Hey look how well you can read English when I take some of the vowels out!" things. The tone is part of the sound of the word, so when you take out the vowels and consonants, and you have enough material/context, you can figure out what's being said, just with the tonal pattern.

If the language doesn't have tone, it gets a little more complicated. Try saying the vowel in bead and then the vowel in boo'd. The timbre of the vowel in [i] is different from the timbre of the vowel in [u]; that's how you tell vowels apart, basically. This difference can be translated into pitch (with [i] being high, and [u] being low). There's also things that go on with the consonants--if you compare bead with beat or beep, certain things will happen to the timbre of the vowel, which again, can be translated into pitch.

So, what'll happen is that the individual sounds map to different pitches: each word will have its particular pattern, and that pattern is based on the underlying acoustics of how that word sounds in a normal spoken register.
posted by damayanti at 5:53 PM on February 7 [10 favorites]


The biggest benefit of whistling is its shrillness. Whistling can travel up to four kilometers — 10 times further than shouting — which means it’s particularly useful for agricultural villages, where people are working in the fields across long distances.

I love the practicality of it. Whistles carry further. Also saves you from going hoarse shouting. Same reason shepherds use whistles for their sheep dogs.

Each letter of the alphabet is individually whistled (alpha, beta, gamma), and strung together to create an ariose warble.

It's like morse code, but encoded by pitch.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:28 AM on February 8


My dad, who has terrible teeth, is the loudest whistler I know -- so I'm not sure about the insistence that strong teeth make for good whistlers. I can't whistle at all. I keep wondering whether I would've developed the ability if I lived in Antia. The people there sound like they spent months, if not years, building their throats into proper instruments. And whistling-for-communication is a much better incentive than I ever had!
posted by grandiloquiet at 7:03 AM on February 8


Imagine the uses in crowded malls!

Not if everyone in the mall is whistling at the same time.
posted by dialMforMara at 10:41 AM on February 13


« Older the notion that they’ve turned the weathermen...   |   THE DIMMED LIGHTS ENCOURAGE CYBERPUNKS TO GATHER …... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments