Whistled language

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Whistled languages use whistling to emulate speech and facilitate communication. A whistled language is a system of whistled communication which allows fluent whistlers to transmit and comprehend a potentially unlimited number of messages over long distances. Whistled languages are different in this respect from the restricted codes sometimes used by herders or animal trainers to transmit simple messages or instructions. Generally, whistled languages emulate the tones or vowel formants of a natural spoken language, as well as aspects of its intonation and prosody, so that trained listeners who speak that language can understand the encoded message.


Whistling without the use of an artificial whistle is achieved by creating a small opening with one's lips and then blowing or sucking air through the hole. The air is moderated by the lips, curled tongue, teeth or fingers to create turbulence, and the curled tongue acts as a resonant chamber to enhance the resulting sound by acting as a type of Helmholtz resonator.

Formant Spectrum of phonetic resonance in speech production, or its peak

In speech science and phonetics, a formant is the spectral shaping that results from an acoustic resonance of the human vocal tract. However, in acoustics, the definition of a formant differs slightly as it is defined as a peak, or local maximum, in the spectrum. For harmonic sounds, with this definition, it is therefore the harmonic partial that is augmented by a resonance. The difference between these two definitions resides in whether "formants" characterise the production mechanisms of a sound or the produced sound itself. In practice, the frequency of a spectral peak can differ from the associated resonance frequency when, for instance, harmonics are not aligned with the resonance frequency. In most cases, this subtle difference is irrelevant and, in phonetics, formant can mean either a resonance or the spectral maximum that the resonance produces. Formants are often measured as amplitude peaks in the frequency spectrum of the sound, using a spectrogram or a spectrum analyzer and, in the case of the voice, this gives an estimate of the vocal tract resonances. In vowels spoken with a high fundamental frequency, as in a female or child voice, however, the frequency of the resonance may lie between the widely spaced harmonics and hence no corresponding peak is visible.

In linguistics, intonation is variation in spoken pitch when used, not for distinguishing words as sememes, but, rather, for a range of other functions such as indicating the attitudes and emotions of the speaker, signalling the difference between statements and questions, and between different types of questions, focusing attention on important elements of the spoken message and also helping to regulate conversational interaction.


Whistled language is rare compared to spoken language, but it is found in cultures around the world. It is especially common in tone languages where the whistled tones transmit the tones of the syllables (tone melodies of the words). This might be because in tone languages the tone melody carries more of the functional load of communication while non-tonal phonology carries proportionally less. The genesis of a whistled language has never been recorded in either case and has not yet received much productive study.

In linguistics and especially phonology, functional load, or phonemic load, refers to the importance of certain features in making distinctions in a language. In other words, a high functional load will make it hard to guess the identity of a phoneme that is not perceived in a word because of noise or omission.


Whistled languages differ according to whether the spoken language is tonal or not, with the whistling being either tone or articulation based (or both).

Manner of articulation configuration and interaction of the articulators when making a speech sound

In articulatory phonetics, the manner of articulation is the configuration and interaction of the articulators when making a speech sound. One parameter of manner is stricture, that is, how closely the speech organs approach one another. Others include those involved in the r-like sounds, and the sibilancy of fricatives.

Tonal languages are often stripped of articulation, leaving only suprasegmental features such as duration and tone, and when whistled retain the spoken melodic line. Thus whistled tonal languages convey phonemic information solely through tone, length, and, to a lesser extent, stress, and most segmental phonemic distinctions of the spoken language are lost.

A phoneme is one of the units of sound that distinguish one word from another in a particular language.

Pitch (music) perceptual property in music

Pitch is a perceptual property of sounds that allows their ordering on a frequency-related scale, or more commonly, pitch is the quality that makes it possible to judge sounds as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies. Pitch can be determined only in sounds that have a frequency that is clear and stable enough to distinguish from noise. Pitch is a major auditory attribute of musical tones, along with duration, loudness, and timbre.

In linguistics, a segment is "any discrete unit that can be identified, either physically or auditorily, in the stream of speech". The term is most used in phonetics and phonology to refer to the smallest elements in a language, and this usage can be synonymous with the term phone.

In non-tonal languages, more of the articulatory features of speech are retained, and the normally timbral variations imparted by the movements of the tongue and soft palate are transformed into pitch variations. [1] Certain consonants can be pronounced while whistling, so as to modify the whistled sound, much as consonants in spoken language modify the vowel sounds adjacent to them.

Tongue mouth organ that tastes and facilitates speech

The tongue is a muscular organ in the mouth of most vertebrates that manipulates food for mastication, and is used in the act of swallowing. It is of importance in the digestive system and is the primary organ of taste in the gustatory system. The tongue's upper surface (dorsum) is covered by taste buds housed in numerous lingual papillae. It is sensitive and kept moist by saliva, and is richly supplied with nerves and blood vessels. The tongue also serves as a natural means of cleaning the teeth. A major function of the tongue is the enabling of speech in humans and vocalization in other animals.

Soft palate tissue constituting the back of the roof of the mouth

The soft palate is, in mammals, the soft tissue constituting the back of the roof of the mouth. The soft palate is part of the palate of the mouth; the other part is the hard palate. The soft palate is distinguished from the hard palate at the front of the mouth in that it does not contain bone.

"All whistled languages share one basic characteristic: they function by varying the frequency of a simple wave-form as a function of time, generally with minimal dynamic variations, which is readily understandable since in most cases their only purpose is long-distance communication." [1]

Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency, which emphasizes the contrast to spatial frequency and angular frequency. The period is the duration of time of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency. For example: if a newborn baby's heart beats at a frequency of 120 times a minute, its period—the time interval between beats—is half a second. Frequency is an important parameter used in science and engineering to specify the rate of oscillatory and vibratory phenomena, such as mechanical vibrations, audio signals (sound), radio waves, and light.

Waveform the shape and form of a signal such as a wave moving in a physical medium or an abstract representation

A waveform is a variable that varies with time, usually representing a voltage or current.

Different whistling styles may be used in a single language. Sochiapam Chinantec has three different words for whistle-speech: sie3 for whistling with the tongue against the alveolar ridge, jui̵32 for bilabial whistling, and juo2 for finger-in-the-mouth whistling. These are used for communication over varying distances. There is also a kind of loud falsetto (hóh32) which functions in some ways like whistled speech. [2]

There are a few different techniques of how to produce whistle speech, the choice of which is dependent on practical concerns. Bilabial and labiodental techniques are common for short and medium distance discussions (in a market, in the noise of a room, or for hunting); whereas the tongue retroflexed, one or two fingers introduced in the mouth, a blow concentrated at the junction between two fingers or the lower lip pulled while breathing in air are techniques used to reach high levels of power for long distance speaking. [3] Each place has its favorite trend that depends on the most common use of the village and on the personal preferences of each whistler. Whistling with a leaf or a flute is often related to courtship or poetic expression (reported in the Kickapoo language in Mexico [4] and in the Hmong [5] and Akha [6] cultures in Asia).

Whistling techniques do not require the vibration of the vocal cords: they produce a shock effect of the compressed air stream inside the cavity of the mouth and/or of the hands. When the jaws are fixed by a finger, the size of the hole is stable. The air stream expelled makes vibrations at the edge of the mouth. The faster the air stream is expelled, the higher is the noise inside the cavities. If the hole (mouth) and the cavity (intra-oral volume) are well matched, the resonance is tuned, and the whistle is projected more loudly. The frequency of this bioacoustical phenomenon is modulated by the morphing of the resonating cavity that can be, to a certain extent, related to the articulation of the equivalent spoken form. [3]

The expressivity of whistled speech is likely to be somewhat limited compared to spoken speech (although not inherently so), but such a conclusion should not be taken as absolute, as it depends heavily on various factors including the phonology of the language[ weasel words ]. For example, in some tonal languages with few tones, whistled messages typically consist of stereotyped or otherwise standardized expressions, are elaborately descriptive, and often have to be repeated. However, in languages which are heavily tonal, and therefore convey much of their information through pitch even when spoken, such as Mazatec and Yoruba, extensive conversations may be whistled. In any case, even for non-tonal languages, measurements indicate that high intelligibility can be achieved with whistled speech (90%) of intelligibility of non-standardized sentences for Greek [7] and the equivalent for Turkish. [8]

This lack of understanding can be seen with a confusion matrix. It was tested using two speakers of Silbo (Jampolsky 1999). The study revealed that generally, the vowels were relatively easy to understand, and the consonants a bit more difficult. [9]


Confusion matrix of the vowels in the perception test. 'Produced' vowels are displayed horizontally and 'perceived' vowels vertically (Numbers in bold correspond to correct identifications).


Confusion matrix of the consonants in the perception test. 'Produced' consonants are displayed horizontally and 'perceived' consonants vertically. (Numbers in bold correspond to correct identifications).

In continental Africa, speech may be conveyed by a whistle or other musical instrument, most famously the "talking drums". However, while drums may be used by griots singing praise songs or for inter-village communication, and other instruments may be used on the radio for station identification jingles, for regular conversation at a distance whistled speech is used. As two people approach each other, one may even switch from whistled to spoken speech in mid-sentence.


Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, based on Spanish, is one of the best-studied whistled languages (Rialland 2005). The number of distinctive sounds or phonemes in this language is a matter of disagreement, varying according to the researcher from two to five vowels and four to nine consonants. This variation may reflect differences in speakers' abilities as well as in the methods used to elicit contrasts. The work of Meyer [7] [10] clarifies this debate by providing the first statistical analyses of production for various whistlers as well as psycholinguistic tests of vowel identification.

Other whistled languages exist or existed in such parts of the world as Turkey (Kuşköy, "Village of the Birds"), [11] [12] France (the village of Aas in the Pyrenees), Mexico (the Mazatecs and Chinantecs of Oaxaca), South America (Pirahã), India (Kongthong village of Meghalaya), [13] (the Chepang of Nepal), and New Guinea. They are especially common and robust today in parts of West Africa, used widely in such populous languages as Yoruba and Ewe. Even French is whistled in some areas of western Africa.[ citation needed ]

In Africa

As well as the Canary Islands, whistled speech occurs in some parts of Southern Africa and Eastern Africa.[ citation needed ]

Most whistle languages, of which there are several hundred, are based on tonal languages.

Only the tone of the speech is saved in the whistle, while aspects as articulation and phonation are eliminated. These are replaced by other features such as stress and rhythmical variations. However, some languages, like that of the Zezuru who speak a Shona-derived dialect, include articulation so that consonants interrupt the flow of the whistle. A similar language is the Tsonga whistle language used in the highlands in the Southern parts of Mozambique. This should not be confused with the whistled sibilants of Shona.

Usage and cultural status

In early China, the technique of transcendental whistling was a kind of nonverbal language with affinities to the spiritual aspects of Daoist meditation. [14]

In the Greek village of Antia, few whistlers remain now [7] but in 1982 the entire population knew sfyria, [15] the local whistled speech.

Whistled speech may be very central and highly valued in a culture. Shouting is very rare in Sochiapam Chinantec. Men in that culture are subject to being fined if they do not handle whistle-speech well enough to perform certain town jobs. They may whistle for fun in situations where spoken speech could easily be heard.

In Sochiapam, Oaxaca, and other places in Mexico, and reportedly in West Africa as well, whistled speech is men's language: although women may understand it, they do not use it.

Though whistled languages are not secret codes or secret languages (with the exception of a whistled language used by ñañigos insurgencies in Cuba during Spanish occupation), [1] they may be used for secretive communication among outsiders or others who do not know or understand the whistled language though they may understand its spoken origin. Stories are told of farmers in Aas during World War II, or in La Gomera, who were able to hide evidence of such nefarious activities as milk-watering because they were warned in whistle-speech that the police were approaching. [1]


Whistle languages have naturally developed in response to the necessity for humans to communicate in conditions of relative isolation, with possible causes being distance, noise levels, and night, as well as specific activities, such as social information, shepherding, hunting, fishing, courtship, or shamanism. [16] Because of this usage, they are mostly related to places with mountains or dense forests. Southern China, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon forest, subsaharan Africa, Mexico, and Europe encompass most of these locations.

They have been more recently found in dense forests like the Amazon where they may replace spoken dialogue in the villages while hunting or fishing to overcome the pressure of the acoustic environment. [7] [10] The main advantage of whistling speech is that it allows the speaker to cover much larger distances (typically 1–2 kilometres (0.62–1.24 mi) but up to 5 km (3.1 mi) in mountains and less in reverberating forests) than ordinary speech, without the strain (and lesser range) of shouting. More specifically, whistle speech can reach a loudness of 130 dB, and the transmission range can reach up to 10 km (as verified in La Gomera, Canary Island). [17] The long range of whistling is enhanced by the mountainous terrain found in areas where whistled languages are used. Many areas with such languages work hard to preserve their ancient traditions, in the face of rapidly advancing telecommunications systems in many areas.


A whistled tone is essentially a simple oscillation (or sine wave), and thus timbral variations are impossible. Normal articulation during an ordinary lip-whistle is relatively easy though the lips move little causing a constant of labialization and making labial and labiodental consonants (p, b, m, f, etc.) problematical. [1] "Apart from the five vowel-phonemes [of Silbo Gomero]—and even these do not invariably have a fixed or steady pitch—all whistled speech-sound realizations are glides which are interpreted in terms of range, contour, and steepness." [1]

There are two different types of whistle tones - hole tones and edge tones. A hole (or 'orifice') tone is produced by a fast-moving cylinder (or 'vena contracta') of air that interacts with the slow-moving anulus of air surrounding it. [18] Instability in the boundary layer leads to perturbations that increase in size until a feedback path is established whereby specific frequencies of the resonance chamber are emphasized. [19] An edge tone, on the other hand, is generated by a thin jet of air that strikes an obstacle. Vortices are shed near the point of disturbance in the flow, alternating on each side of the obstacle or 'wedge'. [18]

A way in which true whistled languages differ from other types of whistled communication is that they encode auditory features of spoken languages by transposing key components of speech sounds. There are two types of whistled languages: those based on non-tone languages, which transpose F2 patterns (dealing with formants), and those based on tone languages, which transpose tone melodies. [20] However, both types of whistle tones have a phonological structure that is related to the spoken language that they are transposing.

In a non-tonal language, segments may be differentiated as follows:

Vowels are replaced by a set of relative pitch ranges generally tracking the f2 formant of spoken language.
Stress is expressed by higher pitch or increased length
Consonants are produced by pitch transitions of different lengths and height, plus the presence or absence of occlusion. ("Labial stops are replaced by diaphragm or glottal occlusions.")

List of whistled languages

The following list is of languages that exist or existed in a whistled form, or of ethnic groups that speak such languages. In some cases (e.g. Chinantec) the whistled speech is an important and integral part of the language and culture; in others (e.g. Nahuatl) its role is much lesser.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Busnel, R.-G. and Classe, A. (1976) Whistled Languages. New York: Springer-Verlag. ISBN   0-387-07713-8.
  2. "A whistled conversation in Sochiapam Chinantec". Summer Institute of Linguistics in Mexico.
  3. 1 2 Asher, R. E., and J. M. Y. Simpson. "Whistled Speech and Whistled Language."The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon, 1994. 573-76. Print.
  4. Ritzenhaler R E & Peterson F A (1954). 'Courtship whistling of the Mexican Kickapoo Indians.' American Anthropologist 56(6), 1088–1089.
  5. Busnel R-G, Alguri G, Gautheron B & Rialland A (1989). 'Sur quelques aspects physiques de la langue à ton sifflée du peuple H'mong.' Cahiers de l'Asie du Sud-Est 26, 39–52. Busnel R-G
  6. Meyer J & Dentel L (2003). 'The world whistles: scientific expedition and international network of cultural collaborations on the theme of whistled languages and talking musical instruments.' http://www.lemondesiffle.free.fr.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Meyer J. (2005) Typology and intelligibility of whistled languages: approach in linguistics and bioacoustics. Pd D dissertation. Cyberthese publication. Lyon 2 University.
  8. Busnel, R.-G. (1970) "Recherches expérimentales sur la langue sifflée de Kuşköy", Revue de phonétique appliquée 14/15: 4157
  9. Rialland, Annie. (2005). Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages. Phonology, 22, pp 237-271 doi:10.1017/S0952675705000552
  10. 1 2 Meyer J. (2008) "Typology and acoustic strategies of whistled languages: Phonetic comparison and perceptual cues of whistled vowels", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 38, 1, 6994.
  11. Christie-Miller, Alexander (July 16, 2012). "The Remote Village Where People 'Talk' in Intricate, Ear-Splitting Bird Whistles". The Atlantic.
  12. Nijhuis, Michelle (August 17, 2015). "The Whistled Language of Northern Turkey". The New Yorker.
  13. "Kongthong – A Village in Meghalaya where People Whistle to Communicate". amazingindiablog.in. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  14. Mair, Victor H. (1996), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, Columbia University Press, p. 429.
  15. 1 2 Stein, Eliot (1 August 2017). "Greece's disappearing whistled language". BBC Travel. BBC.com. Archived from the original on 1 August 2017.
  16. Meyer, J., and B. Gautheron. "Whistled Speech and Whistled Language." The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 2nd Edition, Elsevier, Oxford, vol.13, 2006, p. 573-576. Print.
  17. Meyer, Julien. 2004. Bioacoustics of human whistled languages: an alternative approach to the cognitive processes of language. Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences 76(2): 405-412.
  18. 1 2 Shosted, Ryan K. Just Put Your Lips Together and Blow? The Whistled Fricatives of Southern Bantu. Www.linguistics.berkley.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2014 <http://www.linguistics.berkeley.edu/PhonLab/annual_report/documents/2006/whistleISSP.pdf>.
  19. Shadle, C. H. Experiments on the acoustics of whistling. The Physics Teacher, 21:148–154, 1983.
  20. Annie Rialland (2005). Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages. Phonology, 22, pp 237-271 doi:10.1017/S0952675705000552
  21. "Whistling to Communicate in Alaska". All Things Considered. 21 June 2005. National Public Radio.
  22. "Yupik sentence in spoken and whistled form (Alaska)". Video testimonies. The World Whistles Research Association.
  23. "Bioacoustics of human whistled languages: an alternative approach to the cognitive processes of language" (PDF). scielo.br. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  24. Peter Kenyon (26 September 2015). "In A Turkish Village, A Conversation With Whistles, Not Words".
  25. "This ancient whistling language is in grave danger of dying out". PBS NewsHour. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  26. "Whistling Languages". www-personal.umich.edu. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  27. "LINGUIST List 6.1319: Whistled speech". linguistlist.org. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  28. "LINGUIST List 7.1166: Whistled speech". linguistlist.org. Retrieved 20 March 2018.

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