Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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Living with Herds: a vocalisation dictionary

May 30, 2013

This short observational film (9 min.) by Natasha Fijn, research fellow at the Australian National University, will appeal to anyone interested in animal behaviour, interspecies communication, or biology or anthropology generally.

Fijn describes it as “a visual dictionary showing how Mongolian herders vocalise to their herd animals, followed by the response of the herd animal(s)”:

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Pirahã anecdotes: Do you know how to eat this?

September 14, 2011

I’ve written about Daniel Everett before, in a short post titled “Languages live like bread and love”, the purpose of which was to share a talk he gave on Pirahã and other endangered languages. Since then, I’ve read his book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, and found it an enthralling, affecting portrait of a remarkable language and culture.

Everett’s original motivation in living with the Pirahãs, which he did for many years, was religious: he was a missionary who wanted to translate the Bible into Pirahã and convert the people to Christianity. (That the last chapter is called “Converting the Missionary” will give you an idea of how that turned out.)

The book skilfully blends linguistic fieldwork, ethnography, and memoir. Here’s a snippet:

The first time the Pirahãs brought me something to eat, roasted fish, they asked me, “Gíxai soxóá xobáaxáaí. Kohoaipi?” (Do you already know how to eat this?) It is a great phrase, because if you really don’t want something, it gives you a way out without causing offense. All you have to say is “No, I don’t know how to eat this.”

A little later, the same construction appears in another context. Everett and five Pirahã men are returning to the village from the jungle, where they have been gathering roof materials. The path is long and narrow, with vegetation hanging low over and around it. Each man is carrying a heavy bundle of wood and thatch. Though the Pirahãs do not seem at all tired, Everett is struggling:

I realized that I was getting very tired and again perspiring profusely. I was wondering if I could make it back to the village with this load. My thoughts were interrupted by Kóxoí, who came up alongside of me, smiled, and then reached and took my bundle of palm wood onto his shoulder, adding it to his own load. “You don’t know how to carry this” was all he said.


Further on in the book, there’s a chapter on different channels of communication. Everett writes that because the Pirahã language makes extensive use of pitch, it has communication channels, or “channels of discourse”, that are lacking in most European languages.

Everett describes five such channels, each of which serves particular functions in Pirahã culture: whistle speech, hum speech, musical speech, yell speech, and normal speech (more on these here). Hum speech is what the Pirahãs do instead of whispering. It’s spoken at low volume to disguise what’s being said or who’s saying it, and it’s also used by mothers talking to their children, or when someone’s mouth is full.

Don’t Sleep… has an amusing anecdote of the first time Everett heard the Pirahãs use whistle speech. They had allowed him to go hunting with them, but decided to leave him alone by a tree because his noise (“clunking canteen and machete and congenital clumsiness”) was keeping the animals away.

As I tried to make the best of my solitary confinement, I heard the men whistling to one another. They were saying, “I’ll go over there; you go that way,” and other such hunting talk. But clearly they were communicating. It was fascinating because it sounded so different from anything I had heard before. The whistles carried long and clear in the jungle. I could immediately see the importance and usefulness of this channel, which I guessed would also be much less likely to scare away game than the lower frequencies of the men’s normal voices.

In a previous post, “Silbo Gomero and whistled languages”, I mentioned how whistle speech develops naturally in response to certain activities, such as shepherding and hunting, and environments, such as mountains and dense forest. If you’re curious, you’ll find links, sound files, and video there.

Silbo Gomero and whistled languages

June 20, 2011

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.

A silbador whistling down a Gomeran hill

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

And UNESCO’s 10-minute film, which is well worth a look: