The decline of Chinantec whistled speech in Mexico

March 26th, 2018 by The small village of San Pedro Sochiapam, deep in the mountainous region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, is home to the Chinantec people. Here steep footpaths end at chicken coops and cornfields grow on mountainsides, while the villagers clear brush with machetes and children enjoy ice-cream cones from a stall near the town hall. But, in its day to day routines of life, this community is struggling to maintain a unique and important cultural tradition - whistling. "Chinantec whistled speech is a form of communication where people can really whistle whatever they can say in the spoken language, even though there's more ambiguity in the whistled channel," explains Mark Sicoli, a linguistics professor at the University of Virginia, noting that the presence and absence of glottal stops, tones, and stress patterns make it a particularly productive form of communication. The sounds carry across canyons better than a shout in sharp, birdlike chirps that allow people to make plans, negotiate, and chat without ever saying a word. The whistled speech, which can convey past and future tense, comprises seven tones and can be understood at distances of up to one kilometre away. It can also be transmitted even further, with messages said to wind through the Sierra Madre mountain range to reach a recipient. Fascinating as it may be, however, the Chinantec community is facing an inescapable reality: Whistled communication, practised since pre-Hispanic times, is slowly falling out of use. Read more: Al Jazeera

Greece’s disappearing whistled language

August 1st, 2017 by Hidden deep in the south-east corner of the Greek island of Evia, above a twisting maze of ravines that tumbles toward the Aegean Sea, the tiny village of Antia clings to the slopes of Mount Ochi. There are no hotels or restaurants within 40km, and the tiny place is so remote that it doesn’t exist on Google Maps. But as you travel here along a dizzying road from Karystos, through a mythical landscape of megalithic ‘dragon house’ stone tombs and giant Cyclopic boulders, you’ll hear an ancient siren song reverberating against the mountain walls. That’s because for thousands of years, the inhabitants of Antia have used a remarkable whistled language that resembles the sounds of birds to communicate across the distant valleys. Known as sfyria, it’s one of the rarest and most endangered languages in the world – a mysterious form of long-distance communication in which entire conversations, no matter how complex, can be whistled. For the last two millennia, the only people who have been able to sound and understand sfyria’s secret notes are the shepherds and farmers from this hillside hamlet, each of whom has proudly passed down the tightly guarded tradition to their children. But in the last few decades, Antia’s population has dwindled from 250 to 37, and as older whistlers lose their teeth, many can no longer sound sfyria’s sharp notes. Today, there are only six people left on the planet who can still ‘speak’ this unspoken language – and one of them recently invited me to Antia so I could meet the last whistlers of Greece. Read more: BBC Travel

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds

May 26th, 2017 by 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