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Summary Details

Query:   Whistling Language ( Canary Islands )
Author:  Bruce Downing
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Phonetics

Summary:   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


LL Issue: 10.490
Date Posted: 03-Apr-1999
Original Query: Read original query


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