Humor and Translation: Before the Cell Phone — Whistling

Image: Silbo Gomero – The Gomeran Whistle

Before the Cell Phone — Whistling
By Mark Herman

As is well known, elephants and whales make low-pitched sounds that travel many kilometers through air and water. These sounds have frequencies below the range of human hearing, but we humans also have the ability to communicate over long distances (up to about 8 kilometers) using only what nature has endowed us with.

The August 15, 2017 issue of ATA Newsbriefs included an item from the BBC about Sfyria, a whistled form of Greek used in the village of Antia on the slopes of Mount Ochi on the Greek island of Evia. Sfyria is one of many whistled languages used mainly in remote, and especially mountainous, regions. According to the BBC article, Sfyria is in danger of disappearing because only six fluent speakers remain. Other whistled languages are also dying out, replaced by the ubiquitous cell phone.

The most studied whistled language is probably Silbo (Spanish for “whistle”), which is used on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. Interestingly, Silbo probably existed prior to Spanish settlement of the Canaries, but was adapted to become a whistled form of Spanish in the 16th century. Silbo is not in danger of dying out. It’s used in traditional rituals and festivals, such as processions dedicated to the Virgin Mary or local patron saints, and demonstrations of Silbo are a major tourist attraction. In addition, Silbo has been a mandatory primary and secondary school subject in the Canary Islands since 1999.

Perhaps the most comprehensive article on whistling languages is by BBC Future writer David Robson. The rest of this column is based on his article.

According to Julien Meyer of the University of Grenoble, France, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on whistling languages, there are now “more than 70 groups across the world who can use whistles to express themselves with all the flexibility of normal speech.” Whistling allows hunters to stay in contact with each other through dense Amazon forests, and also tends not to scare potential prey. Inuit communities around the Bering Strait whistle commands to each other as they hunt for whales. Silbo allows shepherds to communicate across deep ravines, and its sounds have actually been learned and mimicked by blackbirds. Whistling has also been used during war. Berber populations in the Atlas Mountains used whistles to pass messages while they were resisting the French. The Australian army recruited Wam speakers from Papua New Guinea to whistle radio messages during World War II that would not be understood by the Japanese. (This was similar to the Americans’ use of Navajo code-talkers, a means of communication pioneered during World War I by the Cherokee and Choctaw.)

Whistling languages have long been discussed. They were mentioned as far back as the 5th Century BCE, when Herodotus described the speech of some Ethiopian communities as “like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats.” It’s unknown exactly which communities he was describing, but several whistled languages still exist in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Ancient Chinese texts speak of people whistling Taoist verses in order to achieve meditative reverie, and there are still diverse whistling communities in southern China, among both the Hmong and the Akha. Among the Hmong, whistling is, or at least used to be, the language of love.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Orsino proclaims, “If music be the food of love, play on.” What better language for lovers than a whistling language, a language that actually is music. According to Meyer, Hmong boys wander through nearby villages whistling poems. If a girl responds, romantic communication begins. The whistles provide anonymity, since it’s much harder to discern the identity of a person whistling than the identity of a person speaking. The couple may even create a personal code, adding nonsense syllables to foil potential eavesdroppers.

But how do rising and falling tones convey meaning? There are two strategies. When the spoken language is tonal, that is, when different pitches have different meanings, the whistles follow the tones that are inherent in spoken sentences. When the spoken language is non-tonal, the whistles mimic the changes in resonance that come with different vowel sounds, while consonants are communicated by how abruptly the whistles jump and slide from note to note. Despite losing many of the cues that help hearers of spoken language distinguish words (such as all the consonants and vowels of tonal languages), fluent whistlers decode sentences as accurately as most people decode speech, that is, with an accuracy of more than 90%. “Our brains are really good at reconstructing words that have been a bit destroyed by noise or other distortions,” Meyer says.

It’s hoped that the study of whistling languages will provide information about the organization of the brain, and perhaps also about how language itself emerged. For decades, neuroscientists have assumed that spoken language is a function of the left brain hemisphere. Onur Gunturkun at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, wanted to find out if whistling languages, like spoken languages, are processed by the left brain. To do so, he traveled to Kuskoy, a village in a valley near the Black Sea. Like the people of La Gomera, Kuskoy shepherds whistle messages across the mountain plateau while fishermen use whistles to cut through the roar of the river in the valley. Gunturkun was awestruck the first time he heard a whistled conversation. The experience of hearing something so unlike regular language carry so much meaning “was like magic,” he says.

To test left brain/right brain functioning, Gunturkun played slightly different syllables into each ear of his study participants and asked them to say which one they heard. Since each ear feeds signals into the opposite side of the brain, Gunturkun hypothesized that if “pah” was played in the left ear and “tah” in the right, “tah” would be heard first since it would reach the language processing centers in the left brain first. But that’s not what happened. Gunturkun’s study participants were equally likely to discern whistles from either direction. “The asymmetry was gone,” Gunturkun says. “Both hemispheres shared the work.” This demonstrates the brain’s flexibility and suggests that people unable to speak after a stroke damages the left brain might be able to use the right brain to learn to communicate via whistles.

Neuroscientists studying music are also interested in whistled languages. There is increasing evidence that language and music both involve many of the same brain regions. For instance, a song’s chord progression is processed in much the same way that sense is made of a sentence’s syntax. This may explain why music lessons can help with some speech or hearing problems, and even improve a child’s literacy. Whistled communication appears to naturally exemplify the close music-language link. Indeed, when the Hmong whistle or play out their poems on a mouth harp instrument, there is no separation between melody and lyrics.

Neither music nor language could become human attributes until extraordinary changes occurred in the proto-human brain: refined articulation, the capacity to imitate others, and the ability to think symbolically. Can whistled languages help us understand how music and language began? Charles Darwin proposed that the two abilities arose together when humans developed a kind of “musical protolanguage.” According to this theory, we humans sang before we could talk, perhaps as a courtship ritual like that characteristic of many birds. Singing would have been a way to demonstrate suitability for mating, forge social bonds, and scare off rivals. Over time, the practice would have impelled us to evolve more control over our vocal cords, eventually resulting in spoken language. Some evolutionary biologists find this idea attractive because it suggests that language developed through a series of small steps rather than one great leap.

Could that first proto-language have been whistled rather than sung? “Perhaps whistling was part of the dynamic that pushed humans to adapt their communication to something more elaborate,” Meyer says. He points out that although non-human primates cannot learn to speak, some have learned to whistle. Bonnie, an orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, learned to mimic some simple tunes of her keeper Erin Stromberg, and wild orangutans can make a high-pitched squeak by sucking air through a leaf. Such displays suggest that whistling may require fewer adaptions than voiced speech, making it the ideal stepping stone to language. If so, whistled language, like spoken language, may have begun as Darwin’s suggested musical proto-language, and, as language of any type became more complex, could have helped coordinate hunting and foraging. Meyer’s research suggests that whistling could have provided advantages for our ancestors’ survival: the ability to communicate over distance while avoiding attracting attention from predators and prey.

This idea has not yet achieved scientific consensus, implying as it does that whistling language preceded spoken language, whereas, in fact, most known whistling languages are based on existing spoken languages. In any event, modernization is rapidly encroaching on the remote communities using whistling languages, which, like all languages of limited diffusion, need to be preserved somehow before they are lost forever.


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.eduDiscussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.




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