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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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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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