"More Than 80 Cultures Still Speak in Whistles"

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Whistled languages are almost always developed by traditional cultures that live in rugged, mountainous terrain or in dense forest. That’s because whistled speech carries much farther than ordinary speech or shouting, says Julien Meyer, a linguist and bioacoustician at CNRS, the French national research center, who explores the topic of whistled languagesin the 2021 Annual Review of Linguistics. Skilled whistlers can reach 120 decibels — louder than a car horn — and their whistles pack most of this power into a frequency range of 1 to 4 kHz, which is above the pitch of most ambient noise.

As a result, whistled speech can be understood up to 10 times as far away as ordinary shouting can, Meyer and others have found. That lets people communicate even when they cannot easily approach close enough to shout. On La Gomera, for example, a few traditional shepherds still whistle to one another across mountain valleys that could take hours to cross.

Whistled languages work because many of the key elements of speech can be mimicked in a whistle, says Meyer. We distinguish one speech sound, or phoneme, from another by subtle differences in their sound frequency patterns. A vowel such as a long e, for example, is formed higher in the mouth than a long o, giving it a higher sound. “It’s not pitch, exactly,” says Meyer. Instead, it’s a more complex change in sound quality, or timbre, which is easily conveyed in a whistle.

Consonants, too, can be whistled. A t, for example, is richer in high frequencies than k, which gives the two sounds a different timbre, and there are also subtle differences that arise from movements of the tongue. Whistlers can capture all of these distinctions by varying the pitch and articulation of their whistle, says Meyer. And the skill can be adapted to any language, even those that have no tradition of whistling. To demonstrate, Meyer whistles English phrases such as “Nice to meet you,” and “Do you understand the whistle?”


Thank you. :slight_smile:

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