Translate this…

By on September 4, 2008

Well, actually, you couldn’t, because today I am talking about whistled languages.

They may be as rare as an honest politician, but they exist, or existed, all the same, and not just in the enchanted forests of the seven dwarfs. On the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, for instance, or in Turkey (Kusköy, “Village of the Birds”), France (the village of Aas in the Pyrenees), Mexico (the Mazatecs and Chinantecs of Oaxaca), South America (Pirahã), Asia (the Chepang of Nepal), and New Guinea.

It is in West Africa, though, that the sound of whistling is most common. Widely used in languages like Yoruba and Ewe, even the finest of the romance languages, French, is whistled in some places.

Whistled languages emulate the tone, prosody (rhythm/stress), intonation and vowel formants of a natural language. This then allows the trained ears of the audience to recognize the melodies and ‘translate’ them back into their natural language.

So I was wrong, in a manner of speaking one must, in fact, translate a whistled language for it to have any meaning.


costa caleta…

Tarello, according to several Italian dictionaries I consulted, is not a word, but then,“ Joe” isn’ t in the English- language dictionary either. Birillo means pin, commonly a bowling pin. Make of that what you will. So far, some of the evidence …

costa caleta on Oct 19 08 at 3:44 am

I very much enjoy films about whistled languages on Discovery or National Geographic and even sometimes try to find a pattern while reading the English translation.

Among the high linguistic diversity of many African countries, there are several whistled languages used for long distance communication, often compared to “talking drums”.

Whistled languages are so interesting and seem so natural, but still somehow weird to the European’s ear, because these sound rare compared to a “spoken” language.

Speakers of those languages use the melody and intonation to understand the emotions and to reveal the meaning of what is being said. Other facts that drew my attention: in some parts of Mexico and West Africa, whistled speech is men’s language, meaning that although women may understand it they do not use it; whistled languages are sometimes used for conveying secret information among outsiders.

Just imagine for a moment that, in order to communicate, we have to listen a melody and perceive what emotions and meaning are hidden in the combination of tones which builds a particular harmony… That is what we often do in our imagination, without any standardisation and without the real need to understand and generate actual communication, but this is how I imagine communication via whistled languages. These are found and valued in different cultures around the world and all seem to be based on a standardised expressions or a “language policy” behind the combination of tones.

In some of them the spoken language is tonal, in some not, the whistling is either a combination of tones or articulation or both. In either case their genesis has not been subjected to much productive studies yet.

Mariana Mihaylova on Oct 13, 2008 at 5:36 pm

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