Dozens of traditional cultures use a whistled form of their native language for long-distance communication.

TOURISTS VISITING La Gomera and El Hierro in the Canary Islands can often hear locals communicating over long distances by whistling — not a tune, but the Spanish language.

“Good whistlers can understand all the messages,” says David Díaz Reyes, an independent ethnomusicologist and whistled-language researcher and teacher who lives in the islands. “We can say, ‘And now I am interviewing with a Canadian guy.’”

The locals communicate in Silbo, one of the last vestiges of much more widespread use of whistled languages. In at least 80 cultures worldwide, people have developed whistled versions of the local language when they call for it.

To linguists, such adaptations are more than just a curiosity: By studying whistled languages, they hope to learn more about how our brains extract meaning from the complex sound patterns of speech. Whistling may even provide a glimpse of one of the most dramatic leaps forward in human evolution: the origin of language itself.

Whistled languages are almost always developed by traditional cultures that live in rugged, mountainous terrain or dense forests. That’s because whistled speech carries much farther than ordinary speech or shouting, says Julien Meyer, a linguist, and bioacoustics at CNRS, the French national research center, which explores the topic of whistled languages in the 2021 Annual Review of Linguistics.

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This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavour from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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