Whistle While You Speak
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
I was recently traveling through the Canary Islands and heard these bird-like sounds in the distance. I asked a local what these noises were, and they said it wasn’t birds, but whistled speech. I was shocked, amazed, and a little confused? How could people communicate solely through whistling? I dove into this a little deeper and wanted to share with you all what I found.
Evidently, a whistled language is not a separate language from a native tongue, but rather an extension of it. The same words used to speak are instead articulated as whistles.
Instead of people using their vocal cords to talk, they are using forced air through their lips, creating a whistle sound. Wow! I mean WOW, right? But it made me wonder, why would people need to communicate through whistling?
It turns out, cultures who speak whistled languages primarily live in remote areas, with rugged terrain or dense forests. They use this whistled speak because the sound carries farther than shouting would. Whistled speak is also used for courtship rituals, in noisy settings, and to trade secrets in the presence of those who cannot whistle.
Today, there are 70-80 populations who communicate through whistled speak, which is a very small number compared to the nearly 7,000 languages spoken. I still found myself wondering: how do people understand a language through whistles?
I don’t want to get too technical (mainly because linguistics is NOT my forte!) but essentially, many of the key elements of speech are mimicked in a whistle. We recognize one speech sound from another by changes in frequency; changes in timbre, or sound quality, can be conveyed in a whistle.
People who understand and speak whistled languages are piecing together meaning from fragmented speech.
This is like having a conversation with someone in a crowded area and you can’t hear them clearly, where some words are muffled or cut out, yet you can still put the pieces together to understand what they are saying.
As I mentioned before, whistled languages originate from a native speaker’s language. There are whistled languages deriving from Spanish, Turkish, Greek, and we could even have a whistled version of English. Apparently, it doesn’t take incredibly long to learn a whistled from of a language—it may only take up to 8 months to be able to communicate and understand in whistle!
There isn’t much research yet about whistled languages, however one aspect I wanted to mention to you all is that researchers believe whistled languages share many features with what linguists think are the first protolanguages (undocumented parent language(s) from which today’s languages derived). One challenge of speaking a language is the ability to control vocal cords to make the full range of speech sounds needed. Whistling may be an easier first step. Some primates are able to whistle and mimic whistling from humans. (Maybe one day we’ll be able to communicate with primates! How amazing would that be?)
My eyes have been opened to an entirely different realm of languages, but unfortunately whistled languages are disappearing due to modernization. Even for those communities living in remote, rugged terrain, there are now roads to travel easily and cellphones to communicate with those further away.
There is some hope, however, as UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has designated two whistled languages—Silbo in the Canary Islands and Kuşköy in Turkey—as elements of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
In fact, in the Canary Island, they made the teaching of Silbo Gomero mandatory in primary schools on the island of La Gomera and set up formal government programs to develop whistling teachers.
Maybe whistled languages will appeal to people and there won’t be as much of a decline in them. I mean people who can’t speak or have issues with their vocal cords could utilize this type of speech to communicate vocally. We never know what the world may hold, right?
While I don’t think we’ll be adding whistled languages to our repertoire any time soon, I wanted to tell you guys about this not only because we work with languages but because it really shows how complex yet diverse the people in this world can be. People adapt to make their lives better, and these languages were created because people lived further apart and wanted to communicate with each other. We as people can learn to speak these languages and communicate without words.
It makes you think: a language is NOT a set of words with grammatical guidelines, it’s a form of communication—whether we’re using words, whistles, signs, or anything else for that matter.
Phwwwwwwth (I have to write it out as I can't whistle)
Until next time,
Koyfman, Steph. “Whistled Languages Around The World.” Babbel Magazine, 17 Jan. 2018, https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/whistled-languages- around-the-world. Accessed 2022.