Insights July 8, 2024

Speaking like bats – with clues to our linguistic past

By Living Word

Try shouting in the rain forest and your voice won’t go far. A skilled whistle, however, might just cut through the dense vegetation. What’s more, some linguists believe that whistlers might be sitting on clues to long-lost languages. Time for a quick look at whistled languages!

As our name suggests, we here at Living Word are firm believers in language as a living, fluid thing. To quote founder and managing director Katharine Marr: “At the very heart of what fascinates me about languages is the fact that language is never static – it constantly evolves.”

This very idea struck us when we came across an Instagram reel about whistled languages recently, which among other things noted the use of such languages in mountainous terrains and places with dense vegetation, since whistled communication travels around ten times further than speech. It makes a lot of sense. If you or the people you’re communicating with are deaf or hard of hearing, you’ll sign. If there are mountains between you? Whistles.

Non-verbal communication and high-pitched sounds have of course been used since ancient times to communicate across long distances, notably to call livestock such as cows and sheep. You may have heard, for instance, the melancholic sounds of Swedish ‘kulning’ before. Whistled languages are far more complex than that, however. They’re not used simply to get attention or send out simple instructions; they echo the tones and intonation of a natural spoken language to an extent where trained listeners who speak that language are able to understand it fully. Perhaps unsurprisingly, whistled languages are more common in tone languages, where melody is particularly important.

Ancient tribes and island communities

The research on whistled languages is limited, so their origins are a little unclear. There are old references to Ethiopian and South Sudanese tribes speaking “like bats” and using “acute whistling” in various written works, and likewise to ancient tribes on the southern Black Sea. On the Greek island of Euboea, meanwhile, the entire population knew ‘sfyria’, the local whistled language, as late as in 1982. It seems only a few whistlers remain there now though.

In the Canary Island of La Gomera, on the other hand, a community of up to 22,000 people speak the whistled language Silbo Gomero fluently still to this day. And while it’s a different kettle of fish in a lot of ways, there are plenty of well-established, still healthy languages in Africa that use clicking sounds widely – not to communicate across long distances, but at least originally to evoke memories of the sounds of nature, including the sparks of a fire in a cave.

These are bona fide languages fully in their own right, borrowing sounds from their natural surroundings, finding creative solutions to local needs. The tragic flip side of the organic growth of language and development of communication is of course that thousands of languages are at risk of extinction – but the beauty of it, surely, is exactly this. And if linguists are right, whistled languages may bring another gift to language lovers, as they are believed to share features with parent languages of today’s spoken languages. Perhaps by studying the art of whistled communication, we can save some of what we thought was long lost.