LINGUIST List 6.1319

Wed Sep 27 1995

Sum: Whistled speech

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. , sum:whistled speech

Message 1: sum:whistled speech

Date: Mon, 25 Sep 1995 13:23:08 sum:whistled speech
From: <>
Subject: sum:whistled speech

Several months ago, I posted a query on "el silbo", the whistled
language of La Gomera, in the Canary islands. The response was
quick (unlike this summary, mea culpa) and most useful. Many thanks
to those who responded: P.A. Jensen, I. Livbjerg, J. Cardenes, J.
Foster, S.J. Hannahs, J. Davis, M. Kuha, J. Beaven, R. Dury, K.
Beesley, L. Murphy, R. Hirsch, R. Cosper, R. Mannell, M. Pickering,
C. Sanz.

The basic and most mentioned reference on this question is

BUSNEL, R.G. and CLASSE, A. 1976. _Whistled Languages_, Berlin:
 Springer. 117 pp.

It expands on earlier treatments by one of its authors:

CLASSE, A. 1956. "Phonetics of the Silbo Gomero" , _Archivum
Linguisticum_ 9: 44-61.

CLASSE, A. 1957. "The Whistled Language of La Gomera", _Scientific
 American_ 196 (4): 111-119.

The other indispensible text is a collection of articles also
published in 1976, including 25 on whistled speech written in
English, French, Spanish or German, and reporting observations made
in Africa, America, Europe and Asia. A substantial part of the
second volume reproduces issues 14 and 15 (1970) of the _Revue de
Phonetique Appliquee_, which are entirely devoted to the whistled
speech of Kuskoy (Turkey):

SEBEOK, T. and UMIKER-SEBEOK, D.J. (eds.) 1976. _Speech Surrogates:
 Drum and Whistle Systems_, The Hague, Paris: Mouton, (2 vol.).

Other references include:

COWAN, C. 1971. "Segmental Features of Tepehua Whistle Speech,
_Proceedings of the Int. Cong. of Phonetic Sciences_, Montreal.

LIVBJERG, I. 1985. (paper in Danish; details available from its
 author at Livbjerg/

BAGEMIHL, B. 1988. "Alternate Phonologies and Morphologies", Ph. D.
 dissertation, U. of British Columbia, Canada

+ several entries mentioned in Busnel and Classe's bibliography and
referring to anecdotal anthropological views published in the late
19th century.

+ a documentary which was shown on PBS's "3-2-1 Contact" science
show. Details anyone?

>From the above texts and from your answers, I was able to make the
following rudimentary notes, which some of you might find useful or
just interesting.

- Essentially, to allow shepherds to communicate across narrow
valleys when ordinary language would be inadequate. Distances,
normally 1-2 km, can reach 5 km or more.
- It is also used in Africa and Nepal for communication during a
- It may be used for secrecy, but not for games.

- Mexico: Mazatec, Tepehua, Nahua, Otomi, Totonac, Kickapoo,
Chinantec, Zapotec, Amuzgo, Chol.
- Bolivia: Siriono
- France (village of Aas, French Pyrenees): Spanish
- Spain (Canary Islands): Gomero Spanish ("el silbo")
- Turkey: Kuskoy
- West Africa: Ewe, Tshi, Marka, Ule, Daguri, Birifor, Burunsi,
Bobo, Bafia, Bape.
- Nepal: Chepang
- Burma: Chin
- New Guinea: Gasup, Binumarien

- Whistled languages are usually found in areas of low population
density and difficult terrain. They are not linked with any
particular linguistic group or language type.

- Only males in Mexico and Africa. Both sexes in Europe. Children
are initiated early where whistling is used on a normal basis.

- Whistled language has a remote, possibly pre-historic, origin; it
is first mentioned in the literature in the 17th century
- It is extinct in Aas; in decline elsewhere, mainly because of the
availability of telephones and other means of modern communication
- Apparently, "el silbo" is still taught in a Gomera school in the
small village of Chipude, by Isidro Ortiz (tel.: 801013)

- Apart from the African cases where a whistle (the tool) is used,
communication consists of whistled realizations of the local
- Pitch variation are produced by the tongue, with its tip pressed
against the teeth, and with the lips immobilized in a rounded or
spread position (use of fingers is optional)
- Each phoneme has a whistled equivalent. Given the loss of jaw and
lip movement by comparison with ordinary speech, phonetic
distinctions are harder to produce. Hence a strong reliance on
repetition and context, and a preference for phonemically-simple
languages and for the communication of short, simple, routine
 * Vowel aperture is replaced by a set of more or less stable
pitch ranges (only relative - not absolute - Fo matters). In
general, vowels are not clearly distinguished.
 * Consonants are produced by pitch transitions between vowels.
Transition length and height, plus the presence/absence of
occlusion, are used for differentiation purposes. Labial stops are
replaced by diaphragm or glottal occlusions.
- Stress is expressed by higher pitch or increased length
- Intonation exists, but conflicts with segmental pitch changes.
Hence, for instance, a preference for lexical over tonal questions.


- Apparently, a different pitch range can point to a different
- The sex of a whistler can usually be identified, but of course
less surely than with regular speech
- In tone languages, such as Mazatec and Tepehua mentioned above,
some sacrifice of articulation is necessary to preserve tone
patterns. This may explain why whistling is used at closer range in
these cases.

LA GOMERA ANECDOTES [Thanks to K. Beesley and M. Kuha]

- Reportedly, some of the commonly used silbo introductions have
been picked up and repeated by birds.

- "My brother was once hiking around Gomera with a friend. They ran
out of drinking water and asked a local person for some. This
person said she didn't have any (it was a very dry area!) but her
neighbor up the mountain could help. "I'll let her know you're
coming" she said, and whistled up the mountain. They walked up the
mountain. My brother walked ahead and arrived first. When he got to
the house, a stranger sitting there said: "Ah, there you are. The
water's right around the corner there; but where is your friend?"
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