LINGUIST List 6.1319

Wed Sep 27 1995

Sum: Whistled speech

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  • , 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.

    WHY WHISTLE? - 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 hunt. - It may be used for secrecy, but not for games.

    WHICH LANGUAGES ARE ALSO WHISTLED AND WHERE? - 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.

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

    WHEN? - 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)

    HOW? - Apart from the African cases where a whistle (the tool) is used, communication consists of whistled realizations of the local language - 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 messages * 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 dialect. - 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?"