Ernest Inventory Article: Whistled Languages

Matthew

When you can’t see the forest for the trees, listen out for the whistles that soar on the mountain breeze. Rooted in spoken language, there are around 70 whistled languages worldwide, all born from a necessity to communicate in remote terrains. Each one is formed from changes in pitch, either following a tonal structure (where whistles, or syllables, follow the melody of their parent tongue), or non-tonal (where whistles mimic the changes in vowel resonance, whilst the jump and slide of different notes indicate the consonants).

Silbo Gomero, the most whistled language in the world

Able to scale the steepest peaks, the resounding chorus of the Silbadors fills the island of La Gomera with a cadence like no other. The 4000-word language replaces the principal phonetics of Castilian Spanish with two distinct sounds for the five vowels and four for the consonants. It is used and understood by over 20,000 people and can be audible at up to two miles (far more economic than a ruddy good yell). As one wise Silbador said, ‘…whistling is always easier than walking’.

Ku__ş dili, the ‘bird language’

The ‘Ku__ş dili’ of Kuşköy (the village of birds) in northern Turkey has been used to traverse the isolated valley on the mountainous Black Sea coast for centuries. Spoken by around 10,000 people (mostly in the districts of Canakci and Giresun), it takes standard Turkish syllables and transforms them into piercing whistles heard from more than half a mile away. Although the language has been in decline, the district authorities have been teaching it at primary school level since 2014.

The H’mong whistle of courtship

Nestled deep in the Himalayas, there exists a whistling language with a twist. Used by the H’mong people to penetrate the surrounding forests, they also use their whistles in the delicate act of courtship. Historically, young boys would saunter through the moonlit streets of neighbouring villages, whistling poems to catch the ears of young girls. Although rare today, this ancient language permits a complex code of love and privacy far more polite and intimate than the screech of your average wolf whistle.

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