Can you whistle in 80 different languages?

Whistling can be a language, and there are still many to learn around the world.

Whistled languages are almost always developed by traditional cultures that live in rugged, mountainous terrain or in dense forest. That’s because whistled speech carries much farther than ordinary speech or shouting, says Julien Meyer, a linguist and bioacoustician at CNRS, the French national research center, who explores the topic of whistled languages in the 2021 Annual Review of Linguistics. Skilled whistlers can reach 120 decibels — louder than a car horn — and their whistles pack most of this power into a frequency range of 1 to 4 kHz, which is above the pitch of most ambient noise.

Makes sense and brings to mind that nobody that I know of has an app yet so a phone can translate text or speech to whistle.

Wouldn’t a phone be an excellent whistler?

Turns out it’s really easy to do for humans. One can shift from speech to whistle and be fluent in just eight months.

Learning to whistle a language you already speak is relatively straightforward. Díaz Reyes’s Spanish-language whistling students spend the first two or three months of the course learning to make a loud whistle with different pitches. “In the fourth or fifth month, they can make some words,” he says. “After eight months, they can speak it properly and understand every message.” This articulation of speech within a whistle only works for nontonal languages, where the pitch of speech sounds isn’t crucial to the meaning of the word. (English, Spanish and most other European languages are nontonal.)

I still think a phone app would be a logical augmentation so humans wouldn’t have to learn whistling at all if they wanted to instead use technology.

That also brings to mind that there is no whistling translator. Imagine having a microphone hear a whistle in one language and then a speaker (pun not intended) would whistle it in another language. Or a phone app could be fluent in all whistled languages…

Sorely missing from these narratives is the American experience. Whistling can be found in outlaw stories such as the one describing how the legendary Bass Reeves caught two wanted men:

As the sun was setting, Reeves heard a sharp whistle coming from beyond the house. Shortly afterward, the woman went outside and responded with an answering whistle. Before long, two riders rode up to the house…

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