We so often privilege individuals as the primary drivers of innovation. But what if technology is also self-organizing, developing as an evolutionary response to the environment? If we think of whistled language as a kind of technology, we have an excellent example of this self-organizing principle in the 42 documented whistled languages around the world.
As we noted in a previous post, reports of whistled languages go back hundreds of years in cultures that would have had no contact with each other: Oaxaca, Mexico, northern Africa’s Atlas Mountains, the Brazilian Amazon, northern Laos, and the Canary Islands.
These are “places with steep terrain or dense forests,” writes Michelle Nijhuis at The New Yorker, “where it might otherwise be hard to communicate at a distance.” Such is the case in the village of Kuşköy, in “the remote mountains of northern Turkey,” notes Great Big Story:
“For three centuries” farmers there “have communicated great distances by whistling. It’s a language called kuş dili that is still used to this day, though fewer people are learning it in the age of the cell phone.” Also called “bird language” by locals, “for obvious reasons,” this system of vocal telephony, like all other examples, is based on actual speech. Nijhuis explains:
Kuşköy’s version [of whistled language] adapts standard Turkish syllables into piercing tones that can be heard from more than half a mile away. The phrase “Do you have fresh bread?,” which in Turkish is “Taze ekmek var mı?,” becomes, in bird language, six separate whistles made with the tongue, teeth, and fingers.
The method may be avian, but the messages are human, albeit in simplified language for ease of transmission. In the video above Muazzez Köçek, Kuşköy’s best whistler, shows how she translates Turkish vocabulary into melodies—turning words into music, an act of coding without a computer.
That this bio-technological feat arose spontaneously to solve the same problem the world over shows how us how humans collectively problem-solve. But of course, individualism has its advantages. Despite the huge amount of data they gather on us, modern communications technologies have met one particular human need.
In Kuşköy, “bird language is rapidly disappearing from daily life,” writes Nijhuis. “In a small town filled with nosy neighbors, texting affords a level of privacy that whistling never did.”
The Fascinating Whistled Languages of the Canary Islands, Turkey & Mexico (and What They Say About the Human Brain)
Speaking in Whistles: The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico
How Languages Evolve: Explained in a Winning TED-Ed Animation
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
Mexico has one such language in Oaxaca. People whistle due to the distance and terrain features which make it easier to communicate this way.
This language is also used in Bulgaria as shown in a recent film “La Gomera” (The whistlers).