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

Hmong communities may use a mouth harp to replicate the melodies of their whistled languages – again blurring the boundaries between music and speech (Credit: Alamy)

The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds
By David Robson25 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:

Source: BBC – Future – The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds
Date accessed: 3 April 2018

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