Thursday, June 1, 2017

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds

If you are ever lucky enough to visit the foothills of the Himalayas, you may hear a remarkable duet ringing through the forest. To the untrained ear, it might sound like musicians warming up a strange instrument. In reality, the enchanting melody is the sound of two lovers talking in a secret, whistled language.

Joining just a handful of other communities, the Hmong people can speak in whistles. The sounds normally allow farmers to chat across their fields and hunters to call to each in their forest. But their language is perhaps most beautifully expressed during a now rarely-performed act of courtship, when boys wander through the nearby villages at nightfall, whistling their favourite poems between the houses. If a girl responds, the couple then start a flirty dialogue.

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The couple may create their own personal code, adding nonsense syllables to confound eavesdroppers
It’s not just the enticing melodies that make it the perfect language of love. Compared with spoken conversations, it is hard to discern the identity of the couple from their whistles – offering some anonymity to the public exchange. The couple may even create their own personal code, adding nonsense syllables to confound eavesdroppers – a bit like the Pig Latin used by English schoolchildren to fool their parents. “It gives them some intimacy,” says Julien Meyer, at the University of Grenoble,

France, who visited the region in the early 2000s.

The practice not only highlights humanity’s amazing linguistic diversity; it may also help us to understand the limits of human communication. In most languages, whistles are used for little more than calling attention; they seem too simple to carry much meaning. But Meyer has now identified more than 70 groups across the world who can use whistles to express themselves with all the flexibility of normal speech.

These mysterious languages demonstrate the brain’s astonishing capacity to decode information from new signals – with insights that are causing some neuroscientists to rethink the fundamental organisation of the brain. The research may even shed light on the emergence of language itself. According to one hypothesis, our first words may have sounded something like the Hmong’s courtship songs.

Meyer’s interest in whistled languages began with a 40-year-old Scientific American article about Silbo Gomero – a form of whistled Spanish ‘spoken’ on one of the Canary Islands. The trilled sounds allow shepherds to communicate across deep ravines, and they are apparently so close to the local birdsong that blackbirds have been known to learn and mimic the human dialogues. You can hear a clip above of someone whistling 'En todo el mundo hay hombres que hablan silbando', which translates as 'Around the World, there are humans who whistle their language'. (Clip courtesy of Julien Meyer and Laure Dentel.)

Meyer was instantly fascinated – and ended up completing a PhD on the subject. More than a decade later, he’s still hooked. “I didn’t think that one day it would give me a job,” he says.

Their speech is like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats – Herodotus

Much of Meyer’s research has focused on charting their prevalence around the globe. The ancient history books offered a few pointers. In the 5th Century BC, for instance, the Greek historian Herodotus described a group of cave-dwelling Ethiopians. “Their speech is like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats,” he wrote.  We can’t know for sure which communities he was describing, but Meyer says that several whistled languages can still be heard in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley.

Indeed, Meyer has now identified whistled languages in every corner of the globe. Given that the whistles can travel much further than normal speech – as far as 8km (5 miles) in open conditions – they are most commonly found in mountains, where they help shepherds and farmers to pass messages down the valley.
But the sounds can also penetrate dense forests such as the Amazon, where hunters whistle to locate each other through the dense foliage. “The whistles are good for fighting against reverberation,” says Meyer. And unlike regular speech, they tend not to scare the potential prey. They can also be useful at sea: the Inuit communities of the Bering Strait whistle commands to each other as they hunt for whales.
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