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Whistle Languages: Using Whistles to Communicate

African American woman whistling
In a previous blog post, I talked about language and how it includes both sounds and gestures. But, the sounds of language don’t have to include just speech. Some cultures use whistles to communicate. This method of communication is called a whistle language, or whistle speech. In this blog post, I’ll talk a little about this type of communication.

What is the History of Whistle Languages?

Some ancient writings mention the presence of whistle languages. For example, one ancient Greek historian wrote about people in the hills and mountains of North Africa who communicated using whistles. Also, some ancient Asian texts mention communicating through whistling, as far back as the 6th century BC. So, whistle languages have existed for quite some time.

Where are Whistle Languages Found?

Whistle languages are found in various parts of the world, including Myanmar, Mexico, Turkey, the Canary Islands, the French Pyrenees, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and New Guinea. These languages tend to be found in areas where people are isolated from each other throughout the day. For example, people may be isolated from each other when they are hunting, herding, or taking part in hill agriculture. Also, whistle languages tend to be found in certain environmental conditions, such as areas with mountains or dense vegetation. Why is this? Well, because people in these types of environments can’t hear each other very well when they talk or even shout. But, they CAN hear whistles. So, whistling is an adaptation for communicating in those types of environments.
Whistle Languages. Image of a shepherd and his flock on a hill.

What are Whistle Languages Used For?

As I just mentioned, whistle languages are often used when people are spread out over the landscape and the environmental conditions make it difficult to hear speech or shouting. For example, shepherds in the mountains near the Black Sea whistle to each other all day long. They talk with each other about the weather and that day’s news, and they also joke around. But, these languages can also be used for other reasons. For example, whistling to communicate is a good way to talk secretly so that outsiders cannot listen in to the conversation. Also, this type of communication can be used in courtship activities. Another use is letting others know about an emergency or dangerous situation. And, these languages are a good way to communicate during hunting without scaring off the prey.

Learn More

Want to learn more about whistle languages? Check out the article, “Whistled Languages Around the World,” from the Babbel website.
Thanks for reading!