In some languages, whistled speech can be used as a fill-in for spoken language when face-to-face conversation is not possible. Whistled speech is a form of communication that abstracts certain aspects of spoken language into whistles. These whistles can be understood by others in the speech community.
Whistled speech can be found in languages all around the world including:
- Yupik (spoken in parts of Alaska and the Russian Far East),
- Mazatec languages (spoken mostly in northern Oaxaca, Mexico),
- Akha (spoken in southern China, eastern Myanmar, northern Laos, and northern Thailand), and
- Banen (spoken in Cameroon).
Long Distance Conversations
Whistled language seems to crop up in mountain ranges or dense jungles, where difficult terrain might create more of a necessity for communication at a distance.
Many languages with whistled speech have tone (a grammatical property of some languages; described below.) Though, neither Greek, Turkish or Spanish (which is whistled by at least two distinct groups) have tone. However, tone is an important feature of most languages with whistled speech, and it tends to be the grammatical feature that makes whistled speech possible.
Tone is one way in which languages use pitch — the degree of highness or lowness of a sound — to encode meaning in language. In languages with tone (including Thai, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, most Bantu languages, Zapotec languages, and many more), each syllable has at least one tone associated with it. Tone can distinguish between words, mark inflections, and encode other grammatical properties.
In Sochiapan Chinantec (spoken in north-central Oaxaca, Mexico), the syllable ta with a high pitch is a question: ‘will we arrive?’
Ta with a midtone means ‘we arrive,’ and ta with a low pitch means ‘foot’.
In whistled speech, tones — as well as vowel length and intonation — are imitated by whistling. This type of communication is typically used over long distances. Not all whistles are considered whistled speech, however.
Whistled speech encodes a specific message that could also be spoken. Non-speech whistling doesn’t do this: the whistle we use in English to get people’s attention (high-low-high) doesn’t map to any specific spoken message.
The spoken equivalent to the ‘high-low-high’ whistle is probably “hey!” but that’s not pronounced with high-low-high intonation. This is in contrast to whistled speech, which mimics the pitches or tone of spoken language.
Whistled Speech Languages in Mexico
In Sochiapan Chinantec, entire conversations can be whistled. Whistled speech is used when face-to-face communication is difficult or impossible: for example, when there’s a lot of fog or when communicating over long distances across canyons or between mountains.
In this culture, only men whistle-speak to each other, but everyone who speaks the language can understand what the whistles mean. This gender divide is common in the whistled speech of various languages spoken in southern Mexico; it is shared, for example, by Mazatec languages.
Examples of Whistled Speech
If you want to hear whistled speech in Sochiapan Chinantec, this is a short example dialogue. In the whistled conversation, a man named Francisco (F) tells Marcelino (M) that he’s going to go work on his land today.
Marcelino asks about Francisco’s crops and asks Francisco to bring him back some of Francisco’s oranges. Francisco agrees, and Marcelino invites Francisco over later that evening, saying that he’s not going anywhere today.
Far beyond a short list of memorized phrases, entire spontaneous conversations can be held in Sochiapan Chinantec whistled speech.
To learn more about whistled conversations in Sochiapan Chinantec, check out this brief documentary.
One of the fascinating things about whistled speech is that humans have developed it independently of each other on every populated continent of the world.
Whistled speech, like language itself, serves a particular need: long-distance communication and communication that isn’t face-to-face. Many of our human ancestors identified this problem and addressed it in the same way.
Whistled speech is not the only way to solve this problem: some languages spoken in West and Central Africa use talking drums or drum language to send messages long distances between towns.
Drum Language & Talking Instruments
In Yoruba (spoken mostly in Benin and Nigeria), a language with tone, some types of drums mimic the tones of spoken language and are used for communication. Drums are not necessarily the only ‘talking’ instruments in West Africa, either: in Hausa (spoken in southern Niger and northern Nigeria), flutes, trumpets, and horns are used in addition to drums.
In the past, speakers of Kele (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) used drum language to announce births, deaths, marriages, and other important cultural events. Sadly, this form of communication is no longer in use in the Kele language today.
Similarly, forms of whistled speech are being lost in Turkish and Greek. Language families like Mazatec and Chinantec are endangered, so the whistled forms of all these languages are threatened as well.
Whistled speech (and drum languages) address the problem of long-distance communication, but other tools, like cell phones and the internet, also address this problem. However, whistled speech is mostly found in places where it’s quite difficult to provide cell phone service, like mountain ranges.
Whistled speech is free, perfectly designed for its environment, requires no equipment, and is already in use around the world. Perhaps this ancient technology fills a specific niche that newer ones will never be able to replace.