UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Whistled Languages

Whistled languages are found in many parts of the world, usually within communities living in mountainous or densely vegetated landscapes, where humans often find themselves scattered in long distances from one another, being unable to hear each other when speaking or shouting. Whistling is then employed as it can travel much longer than speech and it can overcome ambient noise much more effectively.

Whistled languages are not distinct from spoken languages and there is no case of a whistled language which is not based on some spoken language. Whistled speech always relies on a spoken language. It does not replace but rather accompanies spoken language and the two are used in different occasions.

Whistled languages hold poorer means to convey meaning than spoken languages. The numerous acoustic formants of spoken sounds have to be mapped on the one and only formant of whistled speech. The current UCL project focuses on the whistled speech of the village of Antia, on the Greek island of Euboea. It is based on Greek, a non-tonal language. The main question to be addressed is how the complex acoustic clues of spoken segments are mapped on the whistled melody’s single formant. Other issues concern the prosodic features of whistled speech, such as intonation patterns and stress.

Listen to the sound of the whistles:

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Watch a documentary on whistled languages:



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