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A Language Based Only On Whistles

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The human voice can only carry so far, but a whistle can travel for miles. In the mountains and ravines of La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, a language of whistles has been used for centuries to transmit long distance messages with amazing accuracy.

The messages can travel so reliably because the whistling is not a simple signaling system, like smoke signals, where there's a limited set of meanings that have been agreed upon beforehand, but a full language, namely, Spanish. The language, known as Silbo Gomero, involves transposing the sounds of Spanish into whistles.

However, it takes a lot of practice to hear the whistles as Spanish. Here’s a demonstration of Silbo Gomero:

It doesn’t sound much like Spanish—or any other spoken language, for that matter—but close studies of the whistling have revealed that there are fine acoustic distinctions in it that recreate, in an indirect way, the acoustics of speech.

How does it work?

We are accustomed to hearing whistled pitch changes as intonation or melody, but in Silbo Gomero, they indicate vowels and consonants. Notice what happens to your tongue position when you alternate between the vowels ‘ee’ and ‘oo’ while trying to hold your lips still. It moves forward and up for ‘ee,’ and down and back for ‘oo.’ Now do that alternation while whistling. Your mouth is basically a slide whistle! Vowels are positions on the slide.

In Silbo Gomero the highest pitched vowel is 'i' and the lowest is 'o' with the other vowels somewhere in between. At the French site Le Monde Siffle (The World Whistles), there is a cool test you can take to train yourself on the difference. Try it.

Consonants are more complicated. They aren't particular tones, but movements to or from vowel tones. For example, for sounds normally produced with the tongue at the ridge behind the teeth (“coronal consonants”) like t, d, r, n, and l, the transition to a following vowel falls sharply from a very high starting point while for consonants with other places of articulation like p, b, f, and g it falls from a lower starting point.

Consonants are further distinguished by features like whether there’s a smooth transition or a brief interruption, relative loudness, steadiness, or rate of decay of the sound. The phonetics of whistled language are covered in depth in this paper by Annie Rialland. There are a number of dynamic aspects of whistling that can be exploited for fine distinctions. You just have to learn how to hear them and use them.

Who speaks it?

In 2009 UNESCO added Silbo Gomero to its wonderfully-named list Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Schoolchildren in La Gomera now learn the fine distinctions of whistling in school. Use of the language had been on a sharp decline since the 1950s, but recent preservation efforts have led to a revival. This documentary from Time, The Last Speakers of the Lost Whistling Language, shows modern Silbo in action.

Is it the only one of its kind?

While Silbo Gomero is certainly unusual, it is not the only whistling language. There are whistling language in Turkey, Greece, Mexico and France, which you can learn more about at Le Monde Siffle. Because whistling languages are just a technique for transposing a spoken language, theoretically, any language can be represented this way. It may be the case that Silbo was originally used before the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands, when the inhabitants spoke a Berber language, and it was later adapted to Spanish. No reason it couldn’t be adapted to English too. Who knows. These "oral and intangible" systems are never written down. Maybe long, long ago some shepherds in England had their own whistling way of sending messages great distances across the hilly moors. It would be a skill worth developing, for those moments when you just can't get good cell phone reception.

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How Your Brain Turns Words Into Language
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Language is one of the things that makes us human—so much so that our brains can’t function the same way without it. But when it comes to actually speaking, reading, and listening to words, some parts of our brain do more heavy lifting than others. Life Noggin broke down this process in a recent video.

Before speaking a word you just heard out loud, that information must first travel to your primary auditory cortex, then to a part of the brain called the Broca’s area, and finally to your motor cortex, which makes verbalization possible. The Wernicke’s area of the brain also plays an important role in listening to and processing language: If it’s damaged, the speaker’s ability to form coherent sentences suffers.

Knowing more than one language shapes the brain in totally different ways. According to one recent study, bilingual speakers can perceive and think about time differently, depending on which language they're using. Learning a second language as an adult can also improve mental function and slow brain decline later in life.

For the full scoop on how our brains use language, check out the video below.

[h/t Life Noggin]

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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