While it’s only anecdotal, I can say in my own experience I’ve noticed the Latin Americans I know use whistling a lot more than any other group. There are whistles to get people’s attention, whistles of appreciation, and whistles the equivalent of cursing someone out, just to name a few. And Carlos, for example, is able to whistle through his lips, through his teeth, or with his first two fingers in his mouth to produce different pitches and tones.
Over the years I’ve recognized the usefulness of these whistles to get each other’s attention in crowds where shouting might be too harsh. Sometimes when we grocery shop and Carlos goes off to get an item, I’ll have moved on to another aisle before he gets back. I can see him from a distance looking around for me, but he doesn’t see me – so I whistle, and just like that, he’s able to locate me. It’s interesting to note that just like one’s voice is unique, so too is their whistle. Carlos has whistled in a crowd and instantly I knew it was him because of the tone, just as if he had called my name.
So, when I learned that there are actual whistled languages, I was fascinated, but not surprised. Whistle languages can be found around the world, and many exist or existed in Latin America. In the foggy, mountainous terrain of San Pedro Sochiapam in Oaxaca, Mexico, the male speakers of Chinantec speak a whistled version of the language.
The sad thing about this language, like many indigenous languages, is that it’s in danger of dying. While women understand it, and some children speak a little of it, most of the people of the town don’t use the language like the older generation did. Reasons for declining use of whistled Chinantec range from the fact that children learn Spanish in school and they don’t work in the fields, to advancements in technology such as walkie talkies, megaphones, and telephones. According to Dr. Mark Sicoli, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, the whistled language “may be gone from this community within ten years.”
Watch this interesting and beautiful episode of “In the Americas with David Yetman” called “Chiflidos en la neblina” [Whistles in the mist] to learn more about the whistle speakers of the Chinantec language in Oaxaca, Mexico.
And here’s another, shorter video on the same town which ends on a happier note, as it seems some of the younger generation have taken it upon themselves to not only learn the language and use it, but are planning to teach it to others.
Hat tip: OpenCulture.com
Learn more about other whistled languages on Wikipedia