The Fascinating Whistled Languages of the Canary Islands, Turkey & Mexico (and What They Say About the Human Brain)

For some years now lin­guist Daniel Everett has chal­lenged the ortho­doxy of Noam Chom­sky and oth­er lin­guists who believe in an innate “uni­ver­sal gram­mar” that gov­erns human lan­guage acqui­si­tion. A 2007 New York­er pro­file described his work with a reclu­sive Ama­zon­ian tribe called the Pira­ha, among whom Everett found a lan­guage “unre­lat­ed to any oth­er extant tongue… so con­found­ing to non-natives that” until he arrived in the 70s, “no out­sider had suc­ceed­ed in mas­ter­ing it.” And yet, for all its extra­or­di­nary dif­fer­ences, at least one par­tic­u­lar fea­ture of Pira­ha is shared by humans across the globe—“its speak­ers can dis­pense with their vow­els and con­so­nants alto­geth­er and sing, hum, or whis­tle con­ver­sa­tions.”

In places as far flung as the Brazil­ian rain­for­est, moun­tain­ous Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co, the Canary Islands, and the Black Sea coast of Turkey, we find lan­guages that sound more like the speech of birds than of humans. “Whis­tled lan­guages,” writes Michelle Nijhuis in a recent New York­er post, “have been around for cen­turies. Herodotus described com­mu­ni­ties in Ethiopia whose res­i­dents ‘spoke like bats,’ and reports of the whis­tled lan­guage that is still used in the Canary Islands date back more than six hun­dred years.”

In the short video from UNESCO at the top of the post, you can hear the whis­tled lan­guage of Canary Islanders. (See anoth­er short video from Time mag­a­zine here.) Called Sil­bo Gomero, the lan­guage “repli­cates the islanders’ habit­u­al lan­guage (Castil­ian Span­ish) with whistling,” replac­ing “each vow­el or con­so­nant with a whistling sound.” Spo­ken (so to speak) among a very large com­mu­ni­ty of over 22,000 inhab­i­tants and passed down for­mal­ly in schools and cer­e­monies, Sil­bo Gomero shows no signs of dis­ap­pear­ing. Oth­er whis­tled lan­guages have not fared as well. As you will see in the doc­u­men­tary above, when it comes to the whis­tled lan­guage of north­ern Oax­a­can peo­ples in a moun­tain­ous region of Mex­i­co, “only a few whistlers still prac­tice their ancient tongue.” In a pre­vi­ous Open Cul­ture post on this film, Matthias Rasch­er point­ed us toward some schol­ar­ly efforts at preser­va­tion from the Sum­mer Insti­tute of Lin­guis­tics in Mex­i­co, who record­ed and tran­scribed a con­ver­sa­tion between two native Oax­a­can whistlers.

Whis­tled lan­guages evolved for much the same rea­son as birdcalls—they enable their “speak­ers” to com­mu­ni­cate across large dis­tances. “Most of the forty-two exam­ples that have been doc­u­ment­ed in recent times,” Nijhuis writes, “arose in places with steep ter­rain or dense forests—the Atlas Moun­tains, in north­west Africa; the high­lands of north­ern Laos, the Brazil­ian Amazon—where it might oth­er­wise be hard to com­mu­ni­cate at a dis­tance.” Such is the case for the Pira­ha, the Canary Islanders, the Oax­a­can whistlers, and anoth­er group of whistlers in a moun­tain­ous region of Turkey. As Nijhuis doc­u­ments in her post, these sev­er­al thou­sand speak­ers have learned to translit­er­ate Turk­ish into “loud, lilt­ing whis­tles” that they call “bird lan­guage.” New Sci­en­tist brings us the exam­ple of whis­tled Turk­ish above (with sub­ti­tles), and you can hear more record­ed exam­ples at The New York­er.

As with most whis­tled lan­guages, the Turk­ish “bird lan­guage” makes use of sim­i­lar structures—though not sim­i­lar sounds—as human speech, mak­ing it a bit like sem­a­phore or Morse code. As such, whis­tled lan­guages are not like­ly to offer evi­dence against the idea of a uni­ver­sal gram­mar in the archi­tec­ture of the brain. Yet accord­ing to biopsy­chol­o­gist Onur Gün­türkün—who con­duct­ed a study on the Turk­ish whistlers pub­lished in the lat­est Cur­rent Biol­o­gy—these lan­guages can show us that “the orga­ni­za­tion of our brain, in terms of its asym­met­ri­cal struc­ture, is not as fixed as we assume.”

Where we gen­er­al­ly process lan­guage in the left hemi­sphere and “pitch, melody, and rhythm” in the right, Nijhuis describes how the whis­tled Turk­ish study sug­gests “that both hemi­spheres played sig­nif­i­cant roles” in com­pre­hen­sion. The oppor­tu­ni­ties to study whis­tled lan­guages will dimin­ish in the years to come, as cell phones take over their func­tion and more of their speak­ers lose region­al dis­tinc­tive­ness. But the work of Gün­türkün and oth­er bio­log­i­cal researchers may have fas­ci­nat­ing impli­ca­tions for lin­guists as well, cre­at­ing fur­ther con­nec­tions between speech and music—and per­haps even between the speech of humans and that of oth­er ani­mals.

via The New York­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

How Lan­guages Evolve: Explained in a Win­ning TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

Noam Chom­sky Talks About How Kids Acquire Lan­guage & Ideas in an Ani­mat­ed Video by Michel Gondry

What Makes Us Human?: Chom­sky, Locke & Marx Intro­duced by New Ani­mat­ed Videos from the BBC

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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