Whistled language

From Academic Kids

Whistled languages are spoken languages conveyed through the medium of whisting. They may be more limited in communicative ability than spoken speech.

Whistled languages differ according to whether the spoken language is tonal or not, with the whistling being either tone or articulation based. Tonal languages are stripped of articulation, leaving only suprasegmental features such as duration and tone, and when whistled retain the spoken melodic line. In non-tonal languages, some of the articulatory features of speech are retained, though the normally timbral variations imparted by the movements of the tongue and soft palate are transformed into pitch variations. (Busnel and Classe 1976: v) Thus whistled languages convey phonemic information solely through tone, length, and, to a lesser extent, stress, and many phonemic distinctions of the spoken language are lost. "All whistled languages share one basic characteristic: they function by varying the frequency of a simple wave-form as a function of time, generally with minimal dynamic variations (but see Cowan 1948 [see Mazateco]), which is readily understandable since in most cases their only purpose is long-distance communication." (ibid: 32)

Languages communicated by whistling are relatively rare, but are known from around the world. One example is the Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, which maintains Spanish's five vowels, but reduces its consonants down to four. Others exist or existed in all parts of the world including Turkey (Kusk÷y "Village of the Birds"), France (the village of Aas in the Pyrenees), Mexico (the Zapotecs of Oaxaca), South America (PirahŃ), Asia (the Chepang of Nepal), and New Guinea. They are especially common and robust today in parts of West Africa, used widely in such populous languages as Yoruba and Ewe. Even French is whistled in some areas of western Africa.

In continental Africa, speech may be conveyed by a whistle or other musical instrument, most famously the "talking drums". However, while drums may be used by griots singing praise songs or for inter-village communication, and other instruments may be used on the radio for station identification jingles, for regular conversation at a distance whistled speech is used. As two people approach each other, one may even switch from whistled to spoken speech in mid-sentence.

In the Greek village of Antia, the entire population knows how to whistle their speech, and whistled conversations are also carried on at close range.

As the expressivity of whistled speech is limited compared to spoken speech, whistled messages typically consist of stereotyped or otherwise standardized or set expressions, are elaborately descriptive, and often have to be repeated. However, in languages which are heavily tonal, and therefore convey much of their information through pitch even when spoken, such as Mazatec and Yoruba, extensive conversations may be whistled.

In Africa and indigenous Mexican communities, whistled language is used only by men.

Whistled languages are found and used in locations with similarly abrupt relief created by difficult mountainous terrain, slow or difficult communication (no telephones), low population density and/or scattered settlements, and other isolating features such as sheepherding and cultivation of hillsides (ibid: 27-8). The main advantage of whistling speech is that it allows to cover much larger distances (typically 1-2 km but up to 5 km) than ordinary speech, and this is assisted by the relief found in areas where whistled languages are used.

A whistled tone is essentially a simple oscillation (or sine wave), and thus timbral variations are impossible. Normal articulation during an ordinary lip-whistle is relatively easy though the lips move little causing a constant of labialization and making labial and labio-dental consonants (p, b, m, f, etc.) impossible (ibid: 3). "Apart from the five vowel-phonemes--and even these do not invariably have a fixed or steady pitch--all whistled speech-sound realizations are glides which are interpreted in terms of range, contour, and steepness." (ibid: 8)

In a non-tonal language, segments may be differentiated as follows:

Vowels are replaced by a set of relative pitch ranges
Stress is expressed by higher pitch or increased length
Consonants are produced by pitch transitions of different lengths and height, plus the presence or absence of occlusion. ("Labial stops are replaced by diaphragm or glottal occlusions.")

In the case of Silbo Gomero, such strategies produce five vowels and four consonants.

Though whistled languages are not secret codes or secret languages (with the exception of a whistled language used by ˝a˝igos terrorists in Cuba during Spanish occupation (ibid: 22)), they may be used for secretive communication among outsiders or other who do not know or understand the whistled language though they may understand its spoken origin. Supposedly, in Aas during the 1939-1944 war farmers were caught red-handed watering down their milk but police were unable to find any evidence as the farmers were warned by whistled messages of the cops approaching and were able to prepare. There are similar stories of La Gomera (ibid: 15).

The following languages exist or existed in a whistled form:


See also: Solresol, Talking drums

Source

  • Busnel, R.G. and Classe, A. (1976). Whistled Languages. New York: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0387077138.

External links

  • A report from National Public Radio, Whistling to Communicate in Alaska (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4713068), discusses the whistled language used by the Yupik Eskimos of Alaska.
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