Whistled languages are found around the world, but they are rare. A casual listen might suggest little more than a basic code with a modest vocabulary, but whistled languages are rich and complex surrogate languages seemingly capable of expressing just about anything that can be said in the languages from which they derive.
Whistled languages transpose some of the phonetic features of their source languages. Silbo Gomero, based on Spanish, is one of the better known. It is used on La Gomera, a small island of the Canaries with many hills, woods and ravines – terrain well suited to whistles. ‘Silbadores’ can transmit news and other intelligible information over distances of several kilometres.
For centuries, Silbo Gomero has served social, practical, and ceremonial functions. Its origins are uncertain, but it is thought to have come from north Africa. Where other whistled languages of the Canaries have died out, Silbo Gomero enjoys a protected status with UNESCO and was recently added to the island’s school curriculum.
Ramón Trujillo, who wrote a book about the Gomeran whistle, said it “has the basic structure of a natural language and serves as its substitute” (translator: Jeff Brent). This point is echoed by Meyer and Gautheron, whose “Whistled speech and whistled languages” (PDF) tells us the whistle is “a vehicle for articulated language in the true sense of the word”.
Their paper is a very useful introduction, offering a concise overview of where and why whistled languages arise, how they work, their phonological features, and so on:
Whistled languages have naturally developed in response to the necessity for humans to communicate in conditions of relative isolation (distance, night, noise) and specific activities (social information, shepherding, hunting or fishing, courtship, shamanism). Therefore, they are mostly related to places with mountains or dense forests. Southern China, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon forest, subsaharan Africa, Mexico, and Europe encompass most of these locations.
The ability to use a whistled language is passed down through countless generations as part of a particular region’s oral culture. The whistling, though perplexing to outsiders, is taught, used, and experienced as a natural language by its adepts. Even at a neural level,
areas of the brain normally associated with spoken-language function are also activated in proficient whistlers, but not in controls, when they are listening to Silbo Gomero (Carreiras et al., 2005).
Another fMRI study showed that Silbo Gomero
activates left posterior temporal and inferior frontal regions in persons familiar with the use of this speech surrogate. . . . For subjects unfamiliar with Silbo, language regions are not activated. Our results provided further evidence for the flexibility of the human capacity for language to process a wide variety of signal forms.
Non-profit research association The World Whistles has a website offering audio samples of various whistled languages, along with a wide range of publications. The whistles sound so much like birdsong that I was unsurprised to find an anecdote on Linguist List that “some of the commonly used silbo introductions have been picked up and repeated by birds”.
This page from SIL in Mexico transcribes a whistled conversation about oranges and coffee plants in Sochiapam Chinantec.
The BBC reports on Silbo Gomero’s revival.
Julien Meyer has a useful article at Scientific American on the status of whistled speech and what it tells us about the human brain.
Finally two videos: a short cheerful clip about Silbo Gomero, from Busuu.com:
And UNESCO’s 10-minute film, which is well worth a look:
Ah there are other whistled languages? I thought the one on the Canaries was unique. Silly me for thinking that of course!
Love reading about whistled languages =) I came across a mention of them several months ago and couldn’t find much info with my Google-fu. Thanks for all the resources; I’m bookmarking this post to delve into later. Very interesting!
Jams: Silbo Gomero may be the best known, but there’s quite a few scattered in remote corners around the planet. I had no idea how many until I went looking.
Keri: Glad to be of service! Some of the links lead to pages with further resources, so there’s plenty to get stuck into, but it does seem to be an under-investigated form of language.
Wow, I had no clue whistled languages existed. Fascinating. Thanks for bringing it up!
My pleasure, Ben! Some whistling languages apparently have recognisable dialects, too.
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I kind of just stumbled upon this page today, and decided I’d have a go at clearing up some of the doubts surrounding the system in question, as practically everything “known” about it is wrong, even including what it is known as.
I; after many years of researching and studying the system; now find myself in the privileged position of being one of the very few people who actually use and correctly understand it.
(It should; by the way; be known as Canarian whistling, as it has never been exclusive to Gomera, but part of the heritage of at least most of these islands.)
I also have knowledge of other systems of whistled speech around the world.
If anybody would like to know more, I would be happy to help in any way I can, so feel free to ask questions.
Can anybody explain to me the embouchure required to make the whistle?
I would like to try simply making such a whistle noise, but I can’t find any information on the internet regarding the actual technique for producing the sound.
If you are able to make this whistle, also – is it difficult? It is amusing.
James: There is a short section on whistling techniques in Meyer and Gautheron’s paper “Whistled speech and whistled languages” (PDF, also linked in the post). I couldn’t say how difficult it is to learn the technique, but good whistling ability and knowledge of the source language would seem to required.
[…] quasi tutti gli isolani sono in grado di capire e parlare il silbo gomero. La bellezza di questo linguaggio sta nel fatto che può essere ascoltato oltre i tre chilometri di […]
[…] language isn’t even very far-fetched, given that some languages have discourse channels that use whistling, humming, and other such modes of communication. Think of the subtle shades of exasperation, […]
Marvelous article. Thanks very much.
A pleasure, Jenni. Thank you for stopping by.