Even by the standards of southeast Asia, Laos is a linguistically interesting place. As a former French colony, it remains part of la Francophonie, yet ironically, French is not its lingua franca; that would be Lao, spoken natively by just over half the population (as well, in another dialect, by many more Thais on the other side of the western border). And that doesn’t even get into the 90 other tongues spoken in the various regions of Laos, many of which sound nothing like the major languages in use. Venture far from Vientiane, up into the country’s northern highlands, and you’ll even hear a language composed entirely of whistles.
You’ll hear it if you’re lucky, anyway. As conveyed in Omi Zola Gupta and Sparsh Ahuja’s short documentary Birdsong, this language has precious few remaining native speakers — or, in the case of one artisan who communicates through a kind of traditional bamboo bagpipe called the qeej, players. They hail from Long Lan, a village inhabited by the Hmong people (who in the United States became known as an immigrant group thanks to Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino).
“Hmong people are romantics because we live in the mountains, surrounded by the sounds of the birds and the rodents, the winds and meadows of flowers,” says one of them. “The insects and birds are still singing in the forest,” adds another, “but we don’t hear them in the city anymore. And without the birds, how can we tell the seasons?”
Like other whistled languages (including the Oaxacan, Turkish, and Canarian ones we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture), that used by the villagers of Long Lan does not belong to the urban world. As Laura Spinney writes in the Guardian, some 80 such languages still exist in total, “on every inhabited continent, usually where traditional rural lifestyles persist, and in places where the terrain makes long-distance communication both difficult and necessary — high mountains, for example, or dense forest.” Though all of them are now endangered, “whistled languages have come into their own in surprising ways in the past. They have often flourished when there has been a need for secrecy,” as when Papua New Guineans used theirs to evade Japanese surveillance in World War II — or, as one of Birdsong’s interviewees remembers, when he had things to say meant for his girlfriend’s ears alone.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.