LINGUIST List 10.490

Sat Apr 3 1999

Sum: Whistling Language/Canary Islands

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Bruce Downing, Whistling Language ( Canary Islands )

Message 1: Whistling Language ( Canary Islands )

Date: Fri, 2 Apr 1999 17:25:18 -0600
From: Bruce Downing <>
Subject: Whistling Language ( Canary Islands )

This summary is being forwarded, as with the original query,
for my colleague, Judith Zaimont. --Bruce Downing

I have received a fair number of replies to my original query
- many, many thanks. Some of the key references follow:

(1) From Dr. Patricia Kilroe, Dept. of English, Univ. of
Southwestern Louisiana and Doreen Klassen, Indiana University

 The classic work on Mazateco whistle speech (Mexico) is
 George Cowan (1948): "Mazatco whistle speech" in Language

(2) From Elisabet Eir Cortes, an Icelander studying general
linguistics and phonetics at the University of Stockholm:

 David Crystal (1987):"The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language"
 pp 400 which includes a transcription of a conversation in
 whistled speech between Mazateco speakers, members of a tribe
 that lives in and around the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. It also
 says that whistled speech is found in some Central and South
 American tribes, as well as in the occasional European
 community (e.g. in Turkey and the Canary Islands,
 based on Turkish and Spanish respectively).

 Furthermore, Crystal gives a short description on how the
 tunes are based on the patterns of tone and rhythm used in
 the spoken language.

(3) From Dr. Steven Bird, Assoc Director, LDC; Adj Assoc Prof, CIS &
Linguistics, Linguistic Data Consortium, University of Pennsylvania:

 I seem to recall that John Laver's phonetics book
 [] has a discussion
 and references on a S American language where whole sentences
 can be communicated through whistling.

Dr. Bird also wrote about his own fieldwork in Cameroon on some
tone languages. A description of the fieldwork and lots of online
recordings are available

 from []. The site contains
 some carefully selected examples to illustrate the function
 and patterning of tone. These people have a 6-tone xylophone
 and some people can play the melody of their sentences on it.
 Traditionally, the chief had a special kind of 2-tone drum
 that could also be used to approximate the melodies of phrases.
 This could be used to send messages over long distances.

In addition to the above citations two correspondents wrote about
examples of whistled speech captured on film/video:

>From Mel Sanchez, a student in Santa Ana, CA:

 In the Mexican movie with the famous singer and actor Pedro Infante
 entitled Tixoc, there is even an enactment of a Mexican trader and
 an Indian bargaining using whistling which in this case, accoring
 to the trader, is a lingua franca amongst the different Mexican

And finally from Dr. Ioana Chitoran, Linguistics & Cognitive Science,
Dartmouth College, comes the information that Professor Annie Rialland
from CNRS - Paris has been studying the whistling language of the
Canaries, and is working on a documentary on it for French TV.

It is my intent to use excerpts from actual whistling languages within
a new musical work. It has been done effectively with whales'
communications, so why not with another, intrinsically musical, form
of human language?
- ---

Judith Lang Zaimont
Professor of Composition
School of Music - University of Minnesota

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