The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds

If you are ever lucky enough to visit the foothills of the Himalayas, you may hear a remarkable duet ringing through the forest. To the untrained ear, it might sound like musicians warming up a strange instrument. In reality, the enchanting melody is the sound of two lovers talking in a secret, whistled language.

Joining just a handful of other communities, the Hmong people can speak in whistles. The sounds normally allow farmers to chat across their fields and hunters to call to each in their forest. But their language is perhaps most beautifully expressed during a now rarely-performed act of courtship, when boys wander through the nearby villages at nightfall, whistling their favourite poems between the houses. If a girl responds, the couple then start a flirty dialogue.

It’s not just the enticing melodies that make it the perfect language of love. Compared with spoken conversations, it is hard to discern the identity of the couple from their whistles – offering some anonymity to the public exchange. The couple may even create their own personal code, adding nonsense syllables to confound eavesdroppers – a bit like the Pig Latin used by English schoolchildren to fool their parents. “It gives them some intimacy,” says Julien Meyer, at the University of Grenoble, France, who visited the region in the early 2000s.

The practice not only highlights humanity’s amazing linguistic diversity; it may also help us to understand the limits of human communication. In most languages, whistles are used for little more than calling attention; they seem too simple to carry much meaning. But Meyer has now identified more than 70 groups across the world who can use whistles to express themselves with all the flexibility of normal speech.

Read more: BBC News

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