Languages that communicate through Whistles – When Sounds have Meanings

The form of communication constituting whistles is used by various indigenous people in the world and is termed as whistled languages. The language tends to vary in terms of the tonal nature of the spoken language with the whistling being based either on articulation or tone. In many cases, the tonal languages are stripped of articulation, leaving behind suprasegmental features like tone and duration, and when whistled retain the spoken melodic line. In non-tonal variations of language, a few of the articulatory speech figures retained though the usual timbral variations imparted by the movements of the soft palate and the tongue are transformed into pitch variations.

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An introduction to the whistle languages that are still thriving

Whistled languages are rather rare but can be found in different parts of the world. A good example is the Silbo, common in the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, which maintain five vowels in the Spanish language but limits the consonants to four. Other important instances of whistled languages can be found in the village of Aas in the French Pyrenees, the Zapotecs of Oaxaca in Mexico, the Piraha of South America, and the Chepang of Nepal. The languages are rampant in parts of West Africa and New Guinea, and are widely used in popular languages like Ewe and Yoruba. In some locations of western Africa, even the French tongue is broken down into whistles.

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How do whistles convey meaning?

Whistled languages convey phonemic details mainly via tone, length, and, to a certain degree, stress. Unfortunately, many phonemic distinctions of the spoken language have been lost. Since the expressiveness of the whistled speech happens to be limited in comparison to spoken speech, whistled messages usually tend to consist of stereotyped or otherwise standardized expressions. These are extremely descriptive and may be repeated often during the course of conversation. However, in more tonal languages, a lot of the information is conveyed through pitch even when spoken, like the Yoruba and Mazatec, who are skilled at carrying out extensive conversations via whistles.

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More interesting facts about whistled languages

Whistled languages are usually located in areas with abrupt relief formed from difficult mountainous terrain, difficult and slow communication, scattered settlements and low population density, and other isolating features like cultivation of hillsides and sheepherding.

Whistled languages should not be confused with secret languages and codes, with the exception of a whistled language followed by Cuban nanigos terrorists during the Spanish occupation.

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The primary advantage of whistled speech is the fact that it permits the speaker to cover a lot more distance in comparison to ordinary speech, and this is assisted by the relief in the areas where whistled languages are prevalent. In practice, different areas with such languages work hard to preserve their ancient traditions despite the rapid advancement of telecommunications systems in various regions.

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