Yesterday afternoon on NPR’s All Things Considered, Alaska Public Radio Network’s Gabriel Spitzer reported on the “whistling culture” of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik Eskimos. (There’s apparently an annual festival of whistled languages being held this weekend in the Turkish town of Kuşdili (ş = IPA [ʃ]); don’t know whether this town name is morphologically decomposeable, but I do know that dil is Turkish for ‘language’.)
One of the whistlers who was interviewed (Elaine; Spitzer pronounced her last name [kɪŋˈgi:kʊk], but I’m sure at least one of those voiceless velar stops is uvular in Yupik) explains how everyone where she grew up learned the whistled language.
Nobody really taught me, but it was all around us. It was just natural. It was just like language.
Spitzer goes on to explain how the basics of the whistled language.
The whistling corresponds to words in St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and so whistlers can have full, complex conversations with one another without ever articulating an actual word.
So the language consists of whistled versions of St. Lawrence Island Yupik words, which two whistlers briefly demonstrate by having a short conversation. Not knowing what the Yupik words are, it’s hard to tell how one would convert a given word to the whistled language. You can occasionally hear consonants interrupting the whistles at various points, but they all seem to be stops and I’m wondering what happens to fricatives and sonorants; otherwise, I’m guessing that the whistles correspond to suprasegmental features (stress, tone, intonation, length), though I suppose some semblance of vowel quality might also be recuperable. So can any language be whistled? Apparently not, as Spitzer notes:
Still, Elaine [kɪŋˈgi:kʊk] says the whistling method doesn’t translate as well to other languages.
Elaine attempts to provide an example of whistled English, and I found it to be very easy to understand — but she laughs afterwards and says it’s very hard to do. I wonder how much of her feeling about that has to do with how she’s not used to whistling English words — I can imagine that at least some common Yupik words/phrases have become “lexicalized” in the whistled language, making it easier to carry on a conversation — and how much of it has to do with suprasegmental differences between Yupik and English.