Give a little whistle

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.

5 thoughts on “Give a little whistle

  1. Nathan Sanders

    Not really related to the primary content of your post, but as I understand it, kuşdılı (with dotless ıs) means ‘bird language’ (which suggests that kuş means ‘bird’) and is a type of ludling (language game) in which a consonant (often f, but it varies by ‘dialect’ of kuşdılı) is inserted for every syllable, along with a copy of the syllable’s nucleus. Thus, kedi ‘cat’ would become kefedifi.

  2. Eric Bakovic

    Thanks, Nathan. I was sure dıl was a dotted i, but my Turkish is (clearly) a little rusty. Incidentally, when I lived in Istanbul (1982-1984, when I was 11-13), I played a language game like this with my Turkish friends, though I don’t recall what we called it. It involved adding [δVgV] after every syllable, such that kedi came out keδegediδigi. What’s odd about this — though I had no idea at the time — is that [δ] is not a Turkish consonant (at least, not typically). But then I heard the same language game played in English in the (very disturbing) movie Thirteen, and now I wonder whether we all picked it up somewhere else. My Turkish friends didn’t have any other English-speaking friends, so I may have brought it home from school … I just don’t remember.

  3. Nathan Sanders

    Your Turkish is certainly better than mine, I’m sure! My knowledge is limited to the standard phonology problem set, plus my memory of informal chats with a native speaker a decade ago on her knowledge of kuşdılı (which she probably hadn’t used in about a decade!).

    A bit of digging reveals that you are correct, that dil (with dotted i) is the word for ‘language’, but my informant was very precise about kuşdılı having dotless ıs (I distinctly remember her correcting my spelling when I wrote it down). Compound words in Turkish don’t usually (ever?) undergo vowel harmony, which would explain why Kuşdili the city would have dotted is (and why every Google hit I’ve looked at has them, too).

    Perhaps the ludling’s name underwent backness vowel harmony (but not roundness harmony…) for some reason? A way of marking the ludling as ‘weird’, overapplication of backness harmony, or reanalysis of the morpheme structure?

    Or I could be completely misremembering the directionality of my informant’s correction of my spelling. I swear she told me to remove the dots…


    I wonder why there has been no mention of this Alaskan whistling on the internet in the six years since that radio interview.
    Not even on YouTube!
    Isn’t it time for the same journalist to go back and do a second radio program?


    Oh, and to answer the first posters doubts on the phonology of the system, maybe I can help (six years later! Sorry for the delay.):
    Here in the Canary Islands we also have a system of whistled speech.
    I’m guessing the American version is similar.
    In our system we can communicate in whistled Spanish (‘only five vowels) as it is possible to express four different vowels in whistle.
    Therefore any language with many vowels (like English) would be difficult to understand in whistle.

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