Demonstrating the brain’s astonishing capacity to decode information – Ancient “whistled languages” used by indigenous communities in India, China, Turkey & Spain

For generations, the residents of Meghalaya’s Kongthong village have communicated with each other using a unique form of whistled identity instead of names!Read the full story and view more images >>

Photo © The Better India >>

In The Whistling Village of Meghalaya, Every Child Has a ‘Unique Lullaby ID’!

In most ways, Kongthong resembles countless other villages nestled in the lushly-forested East khasi Hills of Meghalaya. Dotted by quaint huts and farms fringed with betelnut trees, this tiny hamlet is inhabited by nearly 700 villagers who cultivate the land, hunt in the forests and live a peaceful pastoral life.

In Kongthong, every time a baby is born, the mother composes a lullaby that becomes a unique identity of the child for life. Moreover, the lullaby has no words and is just is a tune, a kind of hum that only the villagers are able to recognise and remember. […]

It is particularly useful during hunting expeditions. When a group goes hunting, they use these sounds to alert fellow members without arousing the curiosity of another group that may be after the same prey,” Ever E F Sancley, a PhD scholar at the North Eastern Hill University, told Times of India.

Typically inspired by nature and natural sounds, each lullaby – or jingrwai lawbei in the tribe’s dialect – is anything from half-a-minute to a minute long. The mothers of the village use these melodious tunes to call out to their children, who learn to respond to them quickly. After it has been ensured that the whistled lullaby is distinct from all others, it becomes a permanent identity marker for the child.

Interestingly, its only the title of lullaby (about 5-6 seconds long) that is used by the villagers to call out to each other. Among themselves, they never use their official names! […]

What’s more, this musical heritage also plays an important role in the courting rituals of the village. Every summer, on a full moon night, the villagers light a bonfire and take part in a celebration in which every unmarried young man sings his own tune. The one who does this the best is usually chosen by the prettiest single woman as her groom!

As for the origin of this unusual tradition, it remains shrouded in mystery but the villagers believe that if unseen spirits of the nearby forests hear someone’s name being called out, it makes the person fall ill. So, using the lullaby is a way of protecting them from danger. […]

The village’s practice of whistling to each other also makes a lot of practical sense. In the mountains, the sound of a name can often get diffused when shouted out over ridges and valleys. A distinctive tune, on the other hand, reverberates and travels much better, thus reaching a person in no time at all. […]

The good news is that the local administration has started steps in the right direction.

Source: “In The Whistling Village of Meghalaya, Every Child Has a ‘Unique Lullaby ID’!” by Sanchari Pal, The Better India, 1 February 2018 
URL: https://www.thebetterindia.com/129583/unique-whistling-village-kongthong-meghalaya-lullaby/
Date accessed: 13 June 2022

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds
By David Robson
25 May 2017 | To read the full story and view more photos, click here >>

If you are ever lucky enough to visit the foothills of the Himalayas, you may hear a remarkable duet ringing through the forest. To the untrained ear, it might sound like musicians warming up a strange instrument. In reality, the enchanting melody is the sound of two lovers talking in a secret, whistled language.

Joining just a handful of other communities, the Hmong people can speak in whistles. The sounds normally allow farmers to chat across their fields and hunters to call to each in their forest. But their language is perhaps most beautifully expressed during a now rarely-performed act of courtship, when boys wander through the nearby villages at nightfall, whistling their favourite poems between the houses. If a girl responds, the couple then start a flirty dialogue. […]

Meyer has found that Southern China is still a hot spot for many diverse whistling communities among its ethnic minorities, including the Hmong and the Akha. […]

The practice not only highlights humanity’s amazing linguistic diversity; it may also help us to understand the limits of human communication. In most languages, whistles are used for little more than calling attention; they seem too simple to carry much meaning. But Meyer has now identified more than 70 groups across the world who can use whistles to express themselves with all the flexibility of normal speech.

These mysterious languages demonstrate the brain’s astonishing capacity to decode information from new signals – with insights that are causing some neuroscientists to rethink the fundamental organisation of the brain. The research may even shed light on the emergence of language itself. According to one hypothesis, our first words may have sounded something like the Hmong’s courtship songs. […]

Meyer has found that they typically rely on one of two strategies – both of which use changes in pitch create a kind of stripped-down skeleton of the spoken language. It all depends on whether normal, everyday speech is “tonal”. In some countries, particularly in Asia, the pitch of a single syllable in a word can change its meaning. As a result, the whistles follow the melodies that are inherent in any spoken sentence. […]

As modernisation rapidly encroaches on those remote communities, we will need to move quickly to capture these languages, before those echoes from the past are lost forever.

David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

Welcome to The Human Planet

This article is the latest installment of The Human Planet, a new series in which BBC Future uses cutting-edge science to explore humanity’s extraordinary diversity. Read more:

The tribe that sees like no one else
How East and West think in fundamentally different ways
How Tibetans survive on the ‘roof of the world’
The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had
The Japanese art of (not) sleeping

Source: BBC – Future – The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds
URL: https://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170525-the-people-who-speak-in-whistles?ocid=ww.social.link.googleplus
Date accessed: 3 April 2018

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