Hear the Dying Whistled Language of Laos, Featured in a New Short Film, “Birdsong”

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.

via Messy­Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

Dis­cov­er the Dis­ap­pear­ing Turk­ish Lan­guage That is Whis­tled, Not Spo­ken

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

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

The Rarest Sounds Across All Human Lan­guages: Learn What They Are, and How to Say Them

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.