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A different kind of twitter: A look at languages without words

ByAdam Jacot de Boinod
May 25, 2024 02:42 PM IST

Some tribes still communicate in birdlike whistles, others use ‘talking’ drums. And, of course, there’s yodelling. Take a look, in this week’s Capital Letters.

We tend to think of body language as gestures, but it is so much more. The cues we draw from a person’s posture, expressions, facial tics and wordless sounds hark back to modes of communication from a time long before language. Fascinatingly, there are parts of the world where people are still quite at ease without words.

Like the Kele in Congo, the Yoruba of Nigeria (above) use talking drums to communicate. (Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Like the Kele in Congo, the Yoruba of Nigeria (above) use talking drums to communicate. (Wikimedia Commons)

On La Gomera, Spain’s tiny mountainous Canary Island, a language called Silbo Gomero deploys a variety of whistles in place of words (“silbar” is Spanish for “whistle”). These birdlike sounds are more effective than spoken words, when it comes to communicating across the deep chasms and narrow valleys spread out across this island.

There are, incidentally, about 4,000 types of whistles used, to denote different emotions and dangers, questions and answers. These are distinguishable by their pitch and whether they are interrupted or continuous. These could be thought of as a type of word system, given that there are eight base sounds used, strung together in different ways to form the distinct whistles.

In a bit of good news for the once-endangered tongue, Silbo Gomero has been a required subject of study in La Gomera schools since 1999. It is also still used in rituals and festivities, including Christian ones introduced by Spanish missionaries.

Other whistling communicators include the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, who use such sounds to exchange greetings and to buy and sell goods with what they say is a lower risk of misunderstanding.

In the Turkish village of Kuşköy (“Bird Village”), whistled communication is known as Kuş Dili (Bird Language). It has sadly been in decline. There is a festival held annually, to promote the tongue. The festival features whistling demonstrations and competitions, but does not draw a wide audience.

Whistling languages have been found in Greece, Turkey and China too.

Other forms of wordless communication include the talking drums (ntumpane) of the Kele in Congo. The Kele use either their voices or a two-tone percussion instrument called a boungu, to communicate in a wordless, tonal language.

In this case, timing plays an unusual role. The Kele prefer to send out their messages early in the morning or late in the evening, when the air is cool, because cool air is denser, and carries sound waves further.

While most of these tongues are ancient, there are more modern variants too. Cowherds and goatherds, originally in Switzerland, took to yodelling as a method of communication in the 16th century. It helped them call out to one another across vast fields and high peaks. This is a straightforward way to communicate. Certain sounds and notes denote words, so yodelling is essentially a melodic shorthand language of the mountains.

In practice, it is a form of singing that involves repeated, rapid changes of pitch between the low-pitch chest register (“chest voice”) and the high-pitch head register (“falsetto”). Talk about the hills being alive…

(Adam Jacot de Boinod is the author of The Meaning of Tingo)

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