“Reportedly, some of the commonly used Silbo introductions have been picked up and repeated by birds.”


“Languages communicated by whistling are relatively rare, but are known from around the world. One example is the Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, which maintains Spanish’s five vowels, but reduces its consonants down to four. Others exist or existed in all parts of the world including Turkey (Kusköy “Village of the Birds”), France (the village of Aas in the Pyrenees), Mexico (the Zapotecs of Oaxaca), South America (Piraha), Asia (the Chepang of Nepal), and New Guinea. They are especially common and robust today in parts of West Africa, used widely in such populous languages as Yoruba and Ewe. Even French is whistled in some areas of western Africa.

In continental Africa, speech may be conveyed by a whistle or other musical instrument, most famously the “talking drums”. However, while drums may be used by griots singing praise songs or for inter-village communication, and other instruments may be used on the radio for station identification jingles, for regular conversation at a distance whistled speech is used. As two people approach each other, one may even switch from whistled to spoken speech in mid-sentence. In the Greek village of Antia, the entire population knows how to whistle their speech, and whistled conversations are also carried on at close range.

As the expressivity of whistled speech is limited compared to spoken speech, whistled messages typically consist of stereotyped or otherwise standardized or set expressions, are elaborately descriptive, and often have to be repeated. However, in languages which are heavily tonal, and therefore convey much of their information through pitch even when spoken, such as Mazatec and Yoruba, extensive conversations may be whistled. In Africa and indigenous Mexican communities, whistled language is used only by men.

Whistled languages are normally found and used in locations with abrupt relief created by difficult mountainous terrain, slow or difficult communication (no telephones), low population density and/or scattered settlements, and other isolating features such as sheepherding and cultivation of hillsides.

The main advantage of whistling speech is that it allows the speaker to cover much larger distances (typically 1­2 km but up to 5 km) than ordinary speech, and this is assisted by the relief found in areas where whistled languages are used. In practice, many areas with such languages work hard to preserve their ancient traditions, in the face of rapidly advancing telecommunications systems in many areas.

A whistled tone is essentially a simple oscillation (or sine wave), and thus timbral variations are impossible. Normal articulation during an ordinary lip-whistle is relatively easy though the lips move little causing a constant of labialization and making labial and labiodental consonants (p, b, m, f, etc.) impossible.

Apart from the five vowel-phonemes – and even these do not invariably have a fixed or steady pitch – all whistled speech-sound realizations are glides which are interpreted in terms of range, contour, and steepness.

In a non-tonal language, segments may be differentiated as follows:
* Vowels are replaced by a set of relative pitch ranges
* Stress is expressed by higher pitch or increased length
* Consonants are produced by pitch transitions of different lengths and height, plus the presence or absence of occlusion. (“Labial stops are replaced by diaphragm or glottal occlusions.”)
In the case of Silbo Gomero, such strategies produce five vowels and four consonants.

Though whistled languages are not secret codes or secret languages, with the exception of a whistled language used by nanigos terrorists in Cuba during Spanish occupation, they may be used for secretive communication among outsiders or other who do not know or understand the whistled language though they may understand its spoken origin. Supposedly, in Aas during World War II farmers were nearly caught watering down their milk but police were unable to find any evidence as the farmers were warned by whistled messages of the police approaching and were able to prepare. There are similar stories of La Gomera.



[Thanks to K. Beesley and M. Kuha]
“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?”

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.

– 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 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
– 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.






Canary Island whistles again

A means of communication using whistling is being revived after nearly vanishing from the one island on which it is used. The language is called Silbo Gomero, and is only heard on the Canary Island of La Gomera, off the coast of Morocco. Until recently those who communicated in Silbo were dying out – but the government of the island made it compulsory for all schoolchildren on the island to study it, and now it is making a comeback. “There are real masters of Silbo, but most of them are now very old,” Francisco Rivero, a researcher in the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands, told BBC World Service’s Outlook programme. “So the local government decided to introduce it to elementary schools, so that children can learn the Silbo technique. “It’s taught in schools as a way of making children aware of their local culture.”

Berber link
Silbo has only four vowels and four consonants. The key to it is understanding the meaning of the many different tones of the whistles. It can be heard more than two miles away – which was the key to its being sustained on the La Gomera. The language has been passed on from father to son as it was essential to be able to communicate over long distances across the inaccessible valleys. “The island is very hilly, with lots of ravines, which make communication very difficult,” explained Dr Rivero. As a result, a tradition developed whereby if one person heard a whistle, they passed it on. Islanders got so skilled at it that messages have been successfully passed right from one end of the island to the other. “Historically, from the earliest settlers on the Canaries, the Silbo language was the mobile phone of the period,” Dr Rivero said. “[It] allowed people to communicate across great distances, because its frequency allowed the sound to be transmitted. “This form of communication dates back before the Spanish conquest, in the 15th Century.”

Silbo is believed to have come to the island from the Berber people of Morocco, Dr Rivero added. The Canary Islands have very strong links with Morocco, particularly the Berbers, and there is evidence that there may be some people deep in the Atlas mountains who also use whistling to communicate. However, Silbo on La Gomera is unique as it has adopted Spanish speech patterns. “It’s practically a language in itself – just like Castilian Spanish – but it relies on tones rather than vowels and consonants,” Dr Rivero stated. “The tones are whispered at different frequencies, using Spanish grammar. If we spoke English here, we’d use an English structure for whistling. “It’s not just disjointed words – it flows, and you can have a proper conversation.”

“Whistling in theatre, particularly on-stage, is considered extremely unlucky. Before the invention of electronic means of communication, sailors were often used as stage technicians, working with the complicated rope systems associated with flying. Coded whistles would be used to call cues, so it is thought that whistling on-stage may cause, for example, a cue to come early, a “sailor’s ghost” to drop a batten or flat on top of an actor, or general bad luck in the performance.”

“Though whistled languages are not secret codes or secret languages (with the exception of a whistled language used by ñañigos insurgencies in Cuba during Spanish occupation (Busnel and Classe 1976: 22)), they may be used for secretive communication among outsiders or others who do not know or understand the whistled language though they may understand its spoken origin. Stories are told of farmers in Aas during World War II, or in La Gomera, who were able to hide evidence of such nefarious activities as milk-watering because they were warned in whistle-speech that the police were approaching (Busnel and Classe 1976: 15).”

from Graham Robb’s chapter on the French language, in The Discovery of France
“The Pyrenean village of Aas, at the foot of the Col d’Aubisque, above the spa town of Eax-Bonnes, had its own whistling language which was unknown even in the neighbouring valleys until it was mentioned on a television programme in 1959. Shepherds who spent the summer months in lonely cabins had evolved an ear-splitting, hundred-decibel language that could be understood at a distance of up to two miles. It was also used by the women who worked in the surrounding fields and was apparently versatile enough in the early twentieth century to convey the contents of the local newspaper. Its last known use was during the Nazi Occupation, when shepherds helped Jewish refugees, Résistants and stranded pilots to cross the border into Spain. A few people in Aas today remember hearing the language, but no one can reproduce the sounds and no recordings were ever made.”


An equally unusual means of communication is the whistle language of Kuskoy or Bird Village in Turkey. No one knows how the whistle language evolved, although it might have begun as a warning signal for Black Sea smugglers or others engaged in illegal activity. Bird Village, about 80 mi. southwest of Trabzon, takes its name from the birdlike whistling that the villagers often use in place of words. Voices don’t carry far in the mountainous region, but the shrill whistles can be heard for miles, the high-pitched sounds carrying news of births and deaths, love affairs, and all the latest gossip. The whistling serves as a kind of house-to-house telegraph system. In order to get the power to “transmit,” the whistler curls his tongue around his teeth so that the air is forced through his lips. No pucker is made, as in most whistling. To amplify the sound, the palm is cupped around the mouth and the whistling “words” come out with a great blast. It’s said that the language is so powerful and complex that lovers can even romance each other with tender whistles from as far away as 5 mi. A similar whistling language is “spoken” by villagers in the Canary Islands, though a Kuskoyite wouldn’t be understood if he whistled to someone there.

“Cindik says an annual festival is helping to keep the whistled language alive, but the spread of cellphones is causing villagers to abandon it.”

Then, of course, there are the so-called secret languages that range from Cockney rhyming slang, underworld jargon, and carny talk to the Pig Latin of schoolboys that can be traced back to the early 17th century. One of the most interesting is the female secret language developed by the women of Arawak, an island in the Lesser Antilles. This language was invented when fierce South American Caribs invaded the island before the time of Columbus, butchering and eating all the relatively peaceful Arawak male inhabitants and claiming their women. In retaliation, the women devised a separate female language based on Arawak, refusing to speak Carib and maintaining silence in the presence of all males, a revenge that was practiced for generations afterward.

Farmers whistle as part of their everyday business
By Chris Morris / 6 November, 1999

I arrived at Halil Cindik’s house as he was having a chat with his friend Kucuk. You know the sort of thing, just a couple of neighbours chewing the cud across the garden fence.

Except in this case, they were somewhat further apart, several hundred metres apart in fact, across a rather wide valley. They’re used to it of course, having grown up in this land of vibrant green mountains and steep wooded slopes near the southern shores of the Black Sea. Houses in the village of Kuskoy perch precariously above little more than thin air. Now the telephone only arrived in these parts a few years ago, so for generations if you did want to talk to your neighbours there was no choice. It was not so much sing for your supper as whistle down the wind.

Bird village
Kuskoy literally means the Bird Village and if you can’t whistle, well you’re probably not from round here. I would try to give you a quick example, but sadly all I could manage was a rather unpleasant raspberry sound. I can accompany my favourite tune on the radio as well as anyone, but this is no ordinary whistle. Intensive training from my hosts on how precisely to angle my tongue and rest my forefinger on my front teeth produced only further embarrassment. In the end, I had to settle for another cup of tea, and the dunce’s hat in the corner. Kuskoy’s champion whistlers, on the other hand, do it loud and proud – with a decibel level anywhere between noticeable and ear-splitting. Halil and Kucuk make it look and sound ever so easy, but earplugs could occasionally be an advantage. I wouldn’t want to get caught in a heated argument on a long winter’s night.

Bird language
And argue they can, because there’s a whole language of whistles which about 1,000 people in and around Kuskoy use. Anything they can say in Turkish, they can whistle as well. And when your best friend is just across the valley – but it takes an hour of rock scrambling to get there – it’s a pretty useful talent to have. At the moment they have 29 separate whistled noises, one for each letter of the Turkish alphabet. But there could be more – just alter the angle of the tongue, and away you go. Education in the fine art of whistling begins at an early age, and it’s a bit like learning to talk – all the local kids pick it up in the end. Practice makes perfect, and the shrill sound of local chatter echoes down the valley more or less constantly.

A long history
No one really knows exactly when it started, only why. But the writer Xenophon described people shouting across valleys in the same region more than 2,000 years ago. Long-distance whistling in Kuskoy is passed down from generation to generation, and it probably has a long history. There are a handful of other villages around the world where the same tradition thrives in similar remote regions of Mexico, Greece and Spain. But Kuskoy believes it boasts the largest concentration of whistlers on the planet. It’s determined that its language will not be allowed to wither and die as people move away from the village, and modern technology intrudes into the mountains. Most people in the area are farmers of one sort or another, and they still whistle as part of their everyday business. News that a lorry might be coming to pick up the tea harvest, or that someone in the valley round the corner has some leaves to sell, whistles quickly through the community.

Technological onslaught
It’s much more than a gimmick. But can this extraordinary language really survive the technological onslaught? Regular telephones were one thing, but mobiles and laptops are quite another. No telegraph poles, no fuss, and no need to venture out onto the roof to whistle across the valley in a sudden mountain storm. It is a significant threat, and the locals admit that sometimes they get a little lazy. But they are determined that what they call their bird language will continue to flourish. As we all get swept along faster and faster by the giddy currents of the communications revolution, the message from Kuskoy is simple – that sometimes the old ways are still the best ones.

“The Mazateco Indians of Oxaca, Mexico, are frequently seen whistling back and forth, exchanging greetings or buying and selling goods with no risk of misunderstanding. The whistling is not really a language ore even a code; it simple uses the rhythms and pitch of ordinary speech without the words. Similar whistling languages have been found in Greece, Turkey and China, whilst other forms of wordless communication include the talking drums (ntumpane) of the Kele in Congo, the xylophones used by the Northern Chin of Burma (Myanmar), the banging on the roots of trees practised by the Melanesians, the yodeling of the Swiss, the humming of the Chekiang Chinese and the smoke signals of the American Indians.”

Herders’ Whistled Language Shows Brain’s Flexibility
BY James Owen / January 5, 2005

Shepherds who whistle to each other across the rocky terrain of the Canary Islands off northwest Africa are shedding light on the language-processing abilities of the human brain, according to scientists. Researchers say the endangered whistled “language'” of Gomera island activates parts of the brain normally associated with spoken language, suggesting that the brain is remarkably flexible in its ability to interpret sounds as language.

The findings are published in tomorrow’s issue of the science journal Nature. “Science has developed the idea of brain areas that are dedicated to language, and we are starting to understand the scope of signals that can be recognized as language,” said David Corina, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Silbo Gomero is a substitute for Spanish, with individual words recoded into whistles. Vowels and consonants are replaced by tones that are whistled at different frequencies. (“Silbo” comes from the Spanish “silbar”—to whistle.)

Known as silbadores, the whistlers of Gomera are traditionally shepherds and other isolated mountain folk. Their novel means of staying in touch allows them to communicate over long distances—Silbador whistles can travel up to six miles (ten kilometers). “Spanish consonants are mapped into four different whistles and the five vowels into two whistles,” explained lead researcher Manuel Carreiras, psychology professor at the University of La Laguna on the Canary island of Tenerife. “There is much more ambiguity in the whistled signal than in the spoken signal,” he added. Because whistled “words” can be hard to distinguish, silbadores also rely on repetition and context to make themselves understood.

Brain Activity
The study team used neuroimaging equipment to contrast the brain activity of silbadores while listening to whistled and spoken Spanish. Results showed the left temporal lobe of the brain, which is usually associated with spoken language, was engaged during the processing of Silbo Gomero.

The researchers found that other regions in the brain’s frontal lobe also responded to the whistles, including those activated in response to sign language among deaf people. However, brain areas activated in experienced Silbadores differed significantly from those in nonwhistlers who listened to the same sounds but could not understand them. “Our results provide more evidence about the flexibility of human capacity for language in a variety of forms,” Corina said. “These data suggest that left-hemisphere language regions are uniquely adapted for communicative purposes, independent of the modality of signal. The non-Silbo speakers were not recognizing Silbo as a language. They had nothing to grab onto, so multiple areas of their brains were activated.”

Carreiras said silbadores are able to pass a surprising amount of information via their whistles. “The shepherds could whistle a conversation about relativity theory if they wanted, however, they usually talk about other things,” he said. “In daily life they use whistles to communicate short commands, but any Spanish sentence could be whistled.” A silbador sticks a finger in his or her mouth to increase the whistle’s pitch. The other hand can be cupped like a megaphone to direct the sound.

African Roots
Carreiras says the origins of Silbo Gomero remain obscure but that indigenous Canary Islanders, who were of North African extraction, already had a whistled language when Spain conquered the volcanic islands in the 15th century. Whistled languages survive today in Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Vietnam, Guyana, China, Nepal, Senegal, and a few mountainous pockets in southern Europe. There are thought to be as many as 70 whistled languages still in use, though only 12 have been described and studied scientifically.

This form of communication is an adaptation found among cultures where people are often isolated from each other, according to Julien Meyer, a researcher at the Institute of Human Sciences in Lyon, France. “They are mostly used in mountains or dense forests,” he said. Whistled languages, Meyer said, “are quite clearly defined and represent an original adaptation of the spoken language—like a local cellular phone—for the needs of isolated human groups.”

But with modern communication technologies now widely available, researchers say whistled languages like Silbo Gomero are threatened with extinction. “It was a way of communication over deep valleys and steep mountains,” Carreiras said. “Now you can do that with cell phones.” With dwindling numbers of Gomera islanders still fluent in the language, Canaries authorities are taking steps to try to ensure its survival. Since 1999 Silbo Gomero has been taught in all of Gomera’s elementary schools. In addition, locals are seeking assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “The local authorities are trying to get an award from UNESCO to declare [Silbo Gomero] as something that should be preserved for humanity,” Carreiras added.

Yupik Eskimos and their Russian cousins have long practiced this form of whistling communication.

A whistled conversation in Sochiapam Chinantec

Internet connects those who whistle language
BY Manuela Palma de Figueiredo / 2006

Suddenly, in the constant rustling of the Thai jungle, a clear, strong whistle cuts through the air. Meaningless to the uninitiated, this melodious phrase, resembling birdsong, carries precise information: hidden in the dense tropical vegetation, a hunter from the Hmong people is sending a long-distance message to his fellow-hunters about their plan for trapping a wild boar they have been tracking for hours.

Languages facing extinction
This event, like something from the ancient past, is by no means confined to one isolated group. Unknown to most people, and marginalized by linguists, whistled languages have been used the world over for millennia, but are now threatened with extinction within this generation or the next. Passionately interested in languages and all modern forms of communication, Julien Meyer, a 30-year-old French bio-acoustician and linguist, refuses to simply do nothing while a part of the world’s heritage is threatened by the movement of people from the countryside to the cities and by the emergence of new technology. Over the past 10 years, he has verified the existence of 34 whistled and drummed languages throughout the world, and devoted his skills and energy to studying, documenting and preserving a dozen of them. For his determination to safeguard a fast-disappearing, age-old practice, Julien Meyer has been selected as an Associate Laureate in the 2006 Rolex Awards.

Languages tie human beings to nature
Whistled languages communicate over distances like a mobile phone, but they are free and no technology is required. They faithfully transpose the grammar, syntax and, syllable by syllable, the vocabulary of the spoken languages they are based on, producing an accurate rhythmic and melodic copy of them. Other languages exist in drummed form, which is less precise and more repetitive, and is used more for making public announcements than for dialogue.

Whistled and drummed languages are used in Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, in remote areas which have a very rich biodiversity. They overcome distance – up to 30 kilometres for talking drums – and cut through background noise, demonstrating the extraordinary adaptability of groups living in mountainous areas and dense forest, where communication is a constant challenge. “Whistled and drummed speech unites humans and nature by means of language,” Meyer explains. “Sound needs the natural environment as a carrier to propagate it over a long distance. In addition, these communication methods are a unique source of information about their users’ environment and social life.”

Taking steps to preserve a dying form of communication
The first studies of whistled languages were carried out in 1950 by Professor René-Guy Busnel. This famous French scientist, now retired, was the first to study this form of language in terms of linguistics as well as acoustics. Since then, however, whistled speech has raised little interest among linguists, and almost half a century went by before Meyer took up the cause of this fascinating method of communication.

In 1997, while studying at the Ecole Supérieure d’Ingénieurs (school of higher engineering studies) in Marseille, France, Meyer dreamed of working on languages and being able to apply his technical knowledge to concrete cases. He stumbled on an article about Béarnais, an extinct whistled language from the Pyrenees Mountains in France. It was an eye-opener for Meyer. “It struck me that whistled languages provided a natural link between telecommunication systems and human language,” he recalls. He immediately immersed himself in the literature about this unusual subject and began planning visits to regions where people use whistled and drummed languages. He taught himself the spoken languages of some of these regions (he now speaks six languages) and, once he had completed his diploma in bio-acoustics, he set about acquiring the linguistic skills necessary to study whistled and drummed languages. During this time he discovered Busnel’s work, and was spellbound. Eventually they met, and from the first discussions, it was a meeting of like minds. “Julien is the inheritor of my scientific past,” says Busnel, who was born in 1914.

Developing a worldwide network for study
Faithful to the pioneering thinking of the man he regards as his “oldest friend”, Julien Meyer was convinced that the key to understanding whistled languages lay in studying them acoustically as well as linguistically. In 2003, he travelled around the world, forging close links with whistling communities and master drummers in France, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, the Republic of Vanuatu, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Turkey and Greece. During his travels he recorded about 30 hours of whistled and drummed languages for subsequent analysis using the most advanced acoustic techniques. The recordings also provided material for his doctoral thesis on the intelligibility of whistled languages, written in 2005 for the University of Lyon 2 and the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), in France.

Taking the project on-line
This was only the start, however, for the brilliant bio-acoustician who had an even bigger goal in mind: to preserve this priceless cultural heritage at risk of constant erosion by modern technology – which could, ironically, also hold the key to keeping this heritage alive. Meyer will now set up, with the funds from his Rolex Award, an interactive Internet site featuring recordings, photographs and documentation on whistled and drummed languages. This project, ‘The World Whistles’, will be undertaken with close cooperation with the people who use whistled and drummed languages. They will also contribute to the site and oversee the use of the data on it. “By giving them the opportunity to take over modern technology for their own use, and to communicate with other whistling and drumming people whose existence they never even dreamed of, I’m hoping to revive their belief in their own culture. Whistled and drummed languages belong to the people who use them,” insists Meyer, for whom human beings are clearly more important than scientific results. “Respect for our fellow man is the first condition in acquiring knowledge.”

Julien Meyer
julien.meyer [at] theworldwhistles [dot] org / julien.meyer [at] etu.univ-lyon2 [dot] fr

The Pied Piper Of Hamelin Had Nothing On A Frenchman Who Summons
Grasshoppers, Crows And Tree Frogs With Calls Of The Wild
BY John O’Reilly / July 16, 1956

Dr. Rene-Guy Busnel, a vivacious French physiologist, has been visiting American scientific centers telling his audiences how he can whistle up grasshoppers and provoke numerous other reactions among members of the animal kingdom by subjecting them to a variety of sounds. In this country certain uses are made of animal responses to sound. Hunters use crow calls, moose calls and duck calls. Bird watchers attract birds with squeaking devices. The recorded and amplified cries of a starling in anguish are used to scare off other starlings. But Dr. Busnel, who is director of the Laboratoire de Physiologie Acoustique of the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in France, has delved much deeper into the subject. He is a slender man with upright hair, which gives him a look of chronic astonishment. This serves to emphasize his startling pronouncements. He recently described how he and his assistants had recorded the distress call of a crow when it was being attacked by a peregrine falcon. Then he showed pictures of them taking a sound truck out into the countryside where they played the recording real loud. Crows came to the truck from two to three miles away and flew around it for 20 minutes, apparently intent upon ganging up on the falcon. They played the sound backwards and still the crows came from afar.

Dr. Busnel’s most impressive experiment came when he demonstrated his power over female grasshoppers. First he described how the male grasshopper of this particular species attracts the females during the breeding season by emitting a series of sharp sounds. Then the lights went out and he ran color motion pictures of the experiment. A Frenchman was stretched prone on the ground blowing repeated blasts on a small, shrill whistle. Some 20 feet away was a female grasshopper. Steadily she crawled toward the whistler, making her way over weeds and grass and sand. Slowly she walked up the Frenchman’s arm, onto his face and finally perched on his nose right over the whistle. This was repeated time and again and soon grasshoppers were coming from several directions. One climbed up on the whistler’s arm, disappeared behind his neck, then came into view over the top of his head and crawled down his face to the whistle. At one point two Frenchmen, each with a whistle, stretched out on the sand some 10 feet apart and with a grasshopper between them. They kept calling the grasshopper back and forth until it seemed that the creature would develop schizophrenia.

The physiologist related his surprise during a meeting in his laboratory when a tree frog answered human applause. When the group clapped their hands the frog croaked. This led to more experiments, and Dr. Busnel played a recording of the frog croaking in response to a metronome and to pieces of glass being clanked together. Going beyond his own experiments Dr. Busnel told how the Chinese repel hawks by putting whistles on the wings of their pigeons; that an automobile horn will make a hippopotamus rise out of the water; that certain sounds will make a crocodile open its mouth; and that African natives attract fish with a crude device which makes sounds under water. The French scientist was loth to discuss the practical applications of his own discoveries other than to say that the economic uses of some of them were obvious. It is evident that it would be a boon to farmers if they could call crows out of their corn fields. It also is plain that insect pests could be destroyed if the females could be called in at breeding time. It may not be too farfetched to visualize a fisherman collecting bait by whistling up grasshoppers and crickets. Many people would like to order pigeons out of town and it would be good to impress upon rabbits that they should stay out of the garden. There is plenty that should be conveyed to mice and moles.

“I think of the distance between Casablanca and Muscat. The countries mark the Western and Eastern edges of the Arab world; they are separated by only a few thousand miles, but their customs are far more divergent than the distance between them might imply. The language which connects them is like a thread, which unravels at its edges. In Morocco, it is mixed with Berber and French. In Oman, with the whistling language of the mountain people.”

“…we did not attract as many dolphins as we have seen previously but all the same we did have a few come along side us for a distance to the delight of all on board. The Omani’s whistle and holler at the dolphins believing that the noise attracts them to the boat…”

The Pirahã People
BY Leonardo Vintiñi / Jul 3, 2008

Discovered by phonetic expert Professor Dan Everett of Manchester University in 1977, the Pirahã tribe of Brazil have perhaps the most unusual language among the nearly 6000 found on earth. Free from concepts of time, color, or specific quantity, the mind of the Pirahã people appears to have been frozen in time—representing man in a simpler state. Everett has put much effort into understanding the Pirahã language, and their culture, for the past 25 years. As one of very few outside the tribe who’ve managed to tackle this mysterious language, Everett still makes up a significant percentage of Pirahã speakers; the population of this unique Amazon tribe consists of only a few hundred people. The language of the Pirahãs is extreme: it is limited to 8 consonants for men, seven for women, and only three vowels. It does not contain concepts for counting or simple arithmetic—Everett notes that the Pirahã convey varying amounts through approximation.

Immediate Experience
Perhaps most intriguing, Everett found that the Pirahãs don’t use recursive phrases. In other words, they don’t insert phrases within each other to combine different ideas to form a single sentence. Everett thoroughly tested about 20 Pirahãs, and found that none of them used a recursive clause. According to Everett, the Pirahã only talk and think in terms of direct experience. The kind of referencing that occurs in recursive phrases just isn’t a part of their thinking. “[For the Pirahã] sentences…cannot be uttered acceptably in the absence of a particular pair of animals or instructions about a specific animal to a specific hunter. In other words, when such sentences are used, they are describing specific experiences, not generalizing across experiences. It is of course more difficult to say that something does not exist than to show that it does exist, but… in the context of my nearly three decades of regular research on Pirahã, it leads me to the conclusion that there is no strong evidence for the existence of quantifiers in Pirahã,” writes Everett in his 2005 paper for Current Anthropology, ‘Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã.’

Despite Everett’s extensive study with this tribe, his claim for a lack of recursion in the language has many colleagues doubting his conclusions. The qualities of the Pirahã language, as described by Everett, fly in the face of what many linguists consider a universal law of all languages. According to the very influential linguist Noam Chomsky, recursion is something that has proved innate to all human thought throughout the world. Many insist that this infallible lingual law is supposed to apply to absolutely all languages (except, of course, that of the Pirahã). But Everett had only come to this conclusion over time. While he had sensed a lack of recursion in the language early on, for years Everett had been a devoted Chomskyan linguist himself, and attempted to fit his findings within this framework. Yet try as he might, he found that many aspects of the Pirahã language did not adhere to the Chomsky model. “…some of the components of so-called core grammar are subject to cultural constraints, something that is predicted not to occur by the universal-grammar model. I argue that these apparently disjointed facts about the Pirahã language—gaps that are very surprising from just about any grammarian’s perspective—ultimately derive from a single cultural constraint in Pirahã, namely, the restriction of communication to the immediate experience of the interlocutors,” states Everett.

Rethinking Linguistics
According to Everett, the deceptively simple language of the Pirahãs is not an indicator of a mental failing— curiously, the tribe sees all other languages to be quite ridiculous. While their language may seem simple from our perspective, Everett says that they just use different means to convey concepts and emotions. He states that the Pirahã have a complex verbal morphology and system of accents that give the language its expressive color. “The Pirahã people communicate almost as much by singing, whistling, and humming as they do using consonants and vowels,” he writes. Another surprising fact is the absence of myth, ritual, symbolism or any other anthropological characteristic that relates the Pirahãs with other cultures throughout history. For the Pirahã, there does not exist any creator God, or moment of creation; nothing was ever created because it always existed. Their concept and experience of time reduces it to the absolute present. In fact, there are no members of the community interested in tracking the records of grandparents, much less older ancestors. To the Pirahã, once something is outside of direct experience, it ceases to exist. They don’t even seem to have any storytelling. With no color, no time, and no need for recursive sentence structure, could it be that for the Pirahã further detail would seem needlessly redundant? Or do these concepts simply not fit into the Pirahã worldview? Everett says that the Pirahã see other languages as laughable, and show no desire to pursue “Portuguese (or American) knowledge but oppose its coming into their lives. They ask questions about outside cultures largely for the entertainment value of the answers.” Since various defenders of Chomsky’s doctrine do not share Everett’s opinions, could the Pirahã tribe simply represent a state of intellectual development that modern linguistic laws fail to understand?

The Interpreter : Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?
BY John Colapinto / April 16, 2007

One morning last July, in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil, Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, and I stepped from the pontoon of a Cessna floatplane onto the beach bordering the Maici River, a narrow, sharply meandering tributary of the Amazon. On the bank above us were some thirty people—short, dark-skinned men, women, and children—some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett—a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the booming voice of a former evangelical minister—with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations. It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it. Everett eventually abandoned Christianity, but he and Keren have spent the past thirty years, on and off, living with the tribe, and in that time they have learned Pirahã as no other Westerners have. “Xaói hi gáísai xigíaihiabisaoaxái ti xabiíhai hiatíihi xigío hoíhi,” Everett said in the tongue’s choppy staccato, introducing me as someone who would be “staying for a short time” in the village. The men and women answered in an echoing chorus, “Xaói hi goó kaisigíaihí xapagáiso.” Everett turned to me. “They want to know what you’re called in ‘crooked head.’”

“Crooked head” is the tribe’s term for any language that is not Pirahã, and it is a clear pejorative. The Pirahã consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual. They playfully tossed my name back and forth among themselves, altering it slightly with each reiteration, until it became an unrecognizable syllable. They never uttered it again, but instead gave me a lilting Pirahã name: Kaaxáoi, that of a Pirahã man, from a village downriver, whom they thought I resembled. “That’s completely consistent with my main thesis about the tribe,” Everett told me later. “They reject everything from outside their world. They just don’t want it, and it’s been that way since the day the Brazilians first found them in this jungle in the seventeen-hundreds.”

Daniel Everett
email ; dan.everett [at] [dot] uk

‘Katz, Fred and Marlene Dobkin de Rios (1971) Hallucinogenic Music: an Analysis of the Role of Whistling in Peruvian Ayahuasca Healing Sessions’


“Norma, the vegetalista who so astonished me with her care, skill and knowledge during my first ceremony two nights prior, had packed a big bowl with a knot of the local Nicotina Rustica and had blown curling, whistling smoke over a plastic liter bottle filled with an opaque orangish liquid I knew to be ayahuasca, the potent brew of tryptamines and MAO inhibitors that has been prepared in the Upper Amazon for perhaps sixteen thousand years. I knew it to be ayahuasca, since I had, after all, helped mix it the day before, pounding a kilo of the soft woody vine of fresh B. Caapi liana and tossing about fifty green glossy leaves of P. Viridis, a DMT-containing relative of coffee, into the black cauldron simmering over a wood fire on the shores of the Yanayacu River, one of the eleven hundred tributaries of the Amazon. Back home this could be a felony. Here, I now understood, it’s a medicine.

The smoke whistle is a trope, a refrain that often begins or ends an Icaro, one of the beautiful songs sung and whistled continuously throughout the four-hour shamanic ayahuasca ceremony. The smoke and its whistling inflection act as protocols to open up a spirit portal, an active earth surface, while keeping unwelcome entities–what I think of as affects–at bay. After my first session, I had also learned that the songs serve to orient the ayahuasca drinker. The songs mime and sample the birdsong of the region, an ecosystem with over two thousand species of birds and the poly-rhythms of chatter from over 500,000 insect species. I held onto and was held by the Icaros, giving intense thanks for the whistled orientation.

Finding ayahuasca in Iquitos is not difficult. One does not need a sense for occult locales to locate it–it is, according to anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios, an integral part of the medicine of the region. But the pilgrim/tourist who seeks the enlightenment of the yage way of knowledge has probably begun training well before the departure gate. Or should have. For by all accounts, ayahuasca (a potent admixture of various DMT and Monoxidase Inhibitor containing plants found in the region) is hardly a recreational drink. Like other ecodelics, ayahuasca can yield very different kinds of journeys, depending on the “set and setting” of the tea drinker, including programming offered by curanderos in the form of Icaros–the rhythmic and often whistled songs that accompany and guide the tea drinker on her journey. Anxious, even terrifying trips are not uncommon, and unlike the legendary brown acid of Woodstock, it is usually not the psychedelic agent that is the ultimate or even proximate cause of the distress. The problem, the drinker discovers, is the self, which must give way on its attachments if it is to abide the massively parallel consciousness induced by ayahuasca. This parallel consciousness is often presented as a multitude of entities and forms for whom death is a transition but not a destination–“Ayahuasca” means “vine of the dead” in Quechua, and is sought out for its ability, among other things, to erode the very distinction between the living and the dead. But to abide this parallel presentation, an enormous flow of information not verifiable in the serial time of the body, the pilgrim prepares the self for its momentary disappearance through a culling of the self and its wants. Each pilgrim begins with a regime of selective self-negation or denial: the would be interdimensional traveler must fast prior to the ayahuasca ceremony, or face the wrath of a possible inadvertent serotonin crisis provoked by a piece of cheese or chocolate and their MAOI ingredients.”

Marlene Dobkin de Rios
email : mderios [at] marlenedobkinderios [dot] com

“Note: Peruvian whistling vessels are not musical instruments. They are pre-Columbian artifacts which have recently been discovered to be highly effective psychoacoustical instruments, capable of rapidly inducing a profound, positive, beautiful, and beneficial altered state of consciousness which lasts as long as the vessels are being blown.”

The acoustic component: the “Whistling Bottles”
In a short article published in 1971, “Hallucinogenic Music,” Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Fred Katz attempt to argue that there is an important acoustical component to the Yage ceremony. (Katz and de Rios 1971.) Certainly, others had noted the shaman’s use of a schacapa or rattle to mark important points in the ceremony. And other ethnographers have noted that in other cultures, the use of drums or other percussive instruments is part and parcel of the ceremony, creating conditions of “sonic driving” which may help entrain brainwaves. But de Rios points out that one of the most important parts of the Yage folk music performed by the shaman was whistling – the use of certain precise tones at different parts of the ceremony. What significance did this have? She mentions the ancient Pythagorean belief of musical effects on consciousness, with musical progressions linked to states of mind, and the synaesthetic experience that some hallucinogen users report between musical tones and color perceptions or emotional experiences. And admits that even today, knowledge of psychoacoustics (the neurological effects of music on the brain) is in its infancy.

So while it could purely be a cultural component – i.e. the melody creates certain folk associations on the part of the listener, providing content for the visionary experience – she questions whether a more direct effect might not be involved. The shaman would whistle, she noted, to help bring a ‘client’ out of a ‘bad trip’ or negative experience, or to assist the person with some transitional point in the psychedelic visions. Certain tonic progressions would coincide precisely with these transitions. She suggests, “…the preponderance of the tone G could be viewed as the dominant tone away from the tonic C. Perhaps this contrastive situation potentiates the activation of the ayahuasca alkaloids…” De Rios seems to suggest that mostly oral (i.e. non-instrumentally augmented) whistling was involved in the ceremonies she saw, but this may not be universally the case. And this musical component of the ceremony (the need to generate specific whistling tones) may provide the clue to some mysterious Moche artefacts – the so-called “whistling bottles.”

These ceramics were made by pre-Columbian peoples living along the coast of Peru between 500 BCE and up until the Spanish Conquest. They were made primarily by the Moche craftsmen, but can also be found in Chimu and other cultures. The vessels are generally dual-chambered: one chamber is the “inside” of some type of effigy figure, and the other chamber contains a spout. The two chambers are linked on the exterior by a bridge handle which contains a whistling cavity, and an inner cavity. Most archaeologists assume they are drinking vessels, with their whistle being used as “an amusing vent to facilitate the passage of air when pouring and filling with liquid.” However, there is some reason to believe that these curious artefacts were used for more than just imbibing beverages. Daniel Statnekov, an amateur collector, reported that when he blew into one of these whistling vessels, it generated an eerie, high-pitched tone, and he had a sudden feeling of perceiving himself as a moving luminescence rushing rapidly through space, before he confronted an inky black cloud that chilled him “like death” and suddenly forced him to snap out of his vision. He had not used any drug prior to this experience – but it was extraordinarily similar to that reported by yage users! (Statnekov 1987.)

Statnekov set out to prove scientifically that these “whistling bottles” were not used primarily for drinking. He and acoustic physicist Steven Garrett tested about seventy of the bottles, from different cultures and time periods, using the following analysis: pressurized air was sent through the bottles in an anechoic chamber, and the resulting sound passed through a spectrum analyzer. Often as many as seven partials, harmonics of the fundamental frequency, could be detected. They found that the average frequency of the Moche/Huari bottles was around 1320 Hz, whereas the Chimu/Chancay bottles averaged a tone of about 2670 Hz. The earlier cultures tended to produce “enclosed-type,” dual-tone low-frequency whistles, where the second tone could be achieved by halving the blowing pressure, creating a tone about 0.65 of the original frequency. They concluded, “The frequencies of a bottle produced by a specific set of cultures tend on average to be within +/- 14% of the average frequency. On the basis of the small octave range… we are reasonably sure they were not used as musical instruments… however, the clustering of frequencies… in the range of the ear’s greatest sensitivity… and the high sound levels produced by the whistles when blown orally… suggest they were produced as whistles…” (Garrett and Statnekov 1987.)

So, they’re not used as musical instruments, and people very likely didn’t hear very much when drinking from them, so they probably weren’t useful as ritual beverage containers either. What were they? I suspect Statnekov’s experience holds the key. The whistling bottles may have peculiar psychoacoustic effects on their own when blown orally. But more likely, as Dobkin de Rios suggested, such whistles may have been used to potentiate and synergistically amplify the Yage experience. They may have been used by Moche shamans to generate the specific tonal sequences thought to be necessary for guiding the Yage ‘trip.’ After the conquest, shamans may have resorted to purely oral, non-amplified or instrumentalized whistling as an alternative, which is why de Rios didn’t find such things in use among her subjects. However, the manufacture of such vessels may not have stopped with the Spanish Conquest; I suspect careful examination by ethnographers may turn up their continued use in Yage ceremonies in the Andes today. Their effects on consciousness require some more psychophysical study.

Orangutan’s Spontaneous Whistling Opens New Chapter In Study Of Evolution Of Speech / Dec. 12, 2008

Throughout history, human beings have used the whistle for everything from hailing a cab to carrying a tune. Now, an orangutan’s spontaneous whistling is providing scientists at Great Ape Trust of Iowa new insights into the evolution of speech and learning. In a paper published in December in Primates, an international journal of primatology that provides a forum on all aspects of primates in relation to humans and other animals, Great Ape Trust scientist Dr. Serge Wich and his colleagues provide the first-ever documentation of a primate mimicking a sound from another species without being specifically trained to do so. Bonnie, a 30-year-old female orangutan living at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., began whistling – a sound that is in a human’s, but not an orangutan’s, repertoire – after hearing an animal caretaker make the sound.

“This is important because it provides a mechanism to explain documented between-population variation in sounds for wild orangutans,” Wich said. “In addition, it counters a long-held assumption that non-human primates have fairly fixed sound repertoires that are not under voluntary control. Being able to learn new sounds and use these voluntarily are also two important aspects of human speech and these findings open up new avenues to study certain aspects of human speech evolution in our closest relatives.” Previous studies have indicated that orangutans and chimpanzees are capable of species-atypical sounds and vocalizations, but only under the strong influence of human training. Bonnie, however, was not explicitly trained to whistle, according to Wich and his co-authors – Great Ape Trust scientists Dr. Karyl Swartz and Dr. Rob Shumaker; Madeleine E. Hardus and Adriano R. Lameira, doctoral candidates at the Utrecht University in The Netherlands assigned to the Ketambe Research Center in Sumatra, where Wich is research co-manager; and Erin Stromberg, an animal caretaker at the National Zoo.

Scientists have long known that orangutans copy physical movements of humans, but Bonnie’s whistling indicates that the learning capacities of orangutans and other great apes in the auditory domain might be more flexible than previously believed, Wich said. The behavior goes against the argument that orangutans have no control over their vocalizations and the sounds are purely emotional – that is, an involuntary response to stimuli such as predators. Bonnie appears to whistle for the sake of making a sound rather than to receive a food reward or some other incentive. If asked to whistle, she is likely to oblige, another indication to scientists that she makes the sound voluntarily.

In their paper, Wich and his colleagues also shared anecdotal information about Indah, a female orangutan who lived with Bonnie at the National Zoo before moving to Great Ape Trust in 2004. Indah also began to whistle some years after Bonnie was first observed making the sound in the late 1980s, but Indah died before recordings could be made of her whistles. Scientists believe that Indah’s whistling was a vocalization learned from Bonnie. That compares with what scientists assume about social learning in wild orangutan populations. For example earlier work by Dr. van Schaik and colleagues showed that wild orangutans in one population make a “raspberry” sound during nest-making, while orangutans in another population make a “nest smack” sound when engaged in the same activity. Wich said it’s unlikely that purely genetic or ecological factors explain the differences in sounds of different orangutan populations. Rather, it’s more likely others copy one orangutan’s innovative sound because the sound serves a function. “This is a very strong indication that different sounds among wild populations are learned and are not purely genetically or ecologically based,” Wich said. “This is a great indication that orangutans can learn sounds not in their repertoire from another species, and they are flexible in using them.”

The scientific investigation with Bonnie at the National Zoo was supported in part by a grant from the David Bohnett Foundation and complements field studies of wild orangutans, where differences have been noted in the call repertoires between populations. A strength at Great Ape Trust is the ability of its scientists to conduct simultaneous studies on both captive orangutans and wild orangutans on the Indonesian island of Sumatra at the Ketambe Research Center, where Wich is research co-manager. “Bringing captive and field research together is an unharvested field,” Wich said, “and it offers great potential to Great Ape Trust.”

The research also builds on earlier investigations by ape language pioneer Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh a scientist with special standing at Great Ape Trust, and others on the ability of great apes to imitate human speech. Specifically, Savage-Rumbaugh’s 1991 investigation centered on whether the bonobo Kanzi, a member of the colony of bonobos now living at Great Ape Trust, might have structurally different vocalizations than bonobos in another group. In a 2004 study, Savage-Rumbaugh looked at whether Kanzi was attempting to imitate human speech. The results of these studies did enlarge scientists’ appreciation of the plasticity in primate sound and vocal learning and indicated that primates might have some plasticity to produce completely new sounds, Wich and his colleagues wrote. The new findings reopen the door on such research. “One of the main things we do not understand yet is the evolution of speech,” Wich said.

BONUS : BACK into the LOOP

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