Hey, You – Don’t Fall In That Ravine! Whistled Languages Around the Globe

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How many of you can whistle? Not everyone can, but a good portion of the population has the amazing ability to replicate bird noises with their mouths. In fact, some people are so good at whistling, there is even a World Whistling Championship.

Whistling for fun, in a song, or even competitively is one thing – but what if you had to whistle to communicate with other people? As it turns out, there are several cultures (more than 42 documented examples) which turn to the art of the whistle in order to spread ideas and warnings or ask questions.

Who Whistles, and Why Do They Do It?

Kuşköy, Turkey: This village in Turkey has been nicknamed “Valley of the Birds”  due to their reliance on whistle communication. The village is located in a mountainous valley on the coast of the Black Sea. Roads are not paved and are treacherous to navigate at certain times. The language adapts standard Turkish syllables into whistled tones that can carry over a half mile. This allows village people to communicate without having to make a journey across the mountains and valleys.

La Gomera, Canary Islands: Residents of this island use a whistled version of Spanish to communicate across ravines at a distance of us to 5k. The whistled language is known as “Silbo Gomero” (“silbo” is Spanish for “whistle”) and has been around for more than six centuries. The language was on the decline in the 1950s due to economic issues, but since the 1990s has seen a revitalization due to efforts to preserve and teach the language.

Aas, France: This village, located on a hillside in the Pyrenees mountain range, relies on whistling to communicate across the steep mountains and valleys.

Clearly, a common factor between these whistling nations is geography. With rough terrain across long distances making travel difficult, neighbors rely on an alternative communicate method which can carry over several miles.

Whistling and the Brain

The discovery of whistled languages has challenged the scientific belief that language is dominated by the left half of our brains. A study of the Turkish whistlers found that their entire brain was being used when processing and understanding the whistle language. The conclusion of the study shows that the tasks assigned to each side of the human brain may not be as fixed as once thought.

We here at Lionbridge are good at whistling, but not that good. We can, however, provide interpretation services in over 300 languages. To learn more, visit us here.