Does Whistling Have a Role in Language?

For most people, whistling is simply a pleasant way to pass the time, but for people in at least 80 cultures around the world, it's an important life skill.

Over 80 cultures around the world use a whistled language, mostly in areas with rugged terrain or dense forest.
Over 80 cultures around the world use a whistled language, mostly in areas with rugged terrain or dense forest.

Nearly all of these whistled languages were developed by people living in rugged, mountainous areas or in dense forests, who supplemented their local language with whistled versions. Most of the time, these specific whistles are used to communicate information over long distances.

Linguists say that whistled speech can be understood up to 10 times farther than ordinary shouting, and skilled whistlers can reach 120 decibels, which is louder than a car horn. Their whistles fall into a frequency range of 1 to 4 kHz, which is above the pitch of most ambient noise.

Silbo Gomero is one such whistled language. Spoken by the inhabitants of La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, it uses between two and four vowel sounds and up to 10 consonant sounds to make over 4,000 words in the Canarian Spanish dialect.

Wet your whistle with these whistling facts:

  • Linguists are still learning about whistled languages, such as how tonal inflections are used to differentiate words, and how the human brain extracts meaning from complex sound patterns.

  • Hunters have typically used whistles to alert others to the location of prey, or a desire to change direction.

  • Some orangutans in zoos have been known to imitate zoo employees who whistle while they work. When scientists tested an ape in controlled conditions, the animal was able to mimic the sequences of several whistles.

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    • Over 80 cultures around the world use a whistled language, mostly in areas with rugged terrain or dense forest.
      By: fuchsphotography
      Over 80 cultures around the world use a whistled language, mostly in areas with rugged terrain or dense forest.