Can You Whistle a Phrase?

Gloria whistling.

A few days ago, Gloria stopped by my desk with a burning question: had I ever heard of the whistling languages?

Proudly, I was able to answer that I had, but quickly became deflated when we realised that neither of us had the slightest idea of how they work. Was there a whistling alphabet with different tones for vowels and consonants? Do you just learn whole phrases by heart for limited daily use? Clearly, there was a very large hole in our knowledge, and we immediately set about trying to fill it in.

For those of you who don’t know what we’re talking about, whistling languages are those which have developed (mostly) in areas of extreme terrain, where communication by speech would be impossible but where whistles can carry over large distances (up to a couple of miles). Perhaps most well known is the whistling language Silbo Gomero (of La Gomera) which, once endangered, is now being successfully preserved through mandatory classes at school. The way the language actually works is that the whistled phrase resembles, in intonation and pitch, the phrase in the original language – Spanish, in this case. This means that users can improvise conversations in the same way as with a spoken language, even using modern vocabulary which may not previously have existed.

Gloria has actually been to La Gomera and seen first-hand how they achieve the incredible variations in the whistling language: not just with pursed lips, but with fingers to amplify the sound and change the tone. This is all very impressive to me, but it turns out that Gloria is a bit of an expert at whistling, and graciously offered to demonstrate a few simple techniques. Although it’s not the same as having a whole, developed whistling language at your disposal, she does have a few ‘set phrases’ which she not only uses in specific situations but which are understood by people and – in one case – birds too! Watch to the end to hear her top tip on how to make your whistles extra loud…

If you think you can rival Gloria for expertise in whistling, or have a different whistle you actually use in everyday life, we’d love to hear about it!


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