The decline of Chinantec whistled speech in Mexico

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

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