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Some People Really Do Whistle While They Work – Here’s Why

Published October 15, 2016 in News

By: Anne E. Bromley | University Communications

Whistling is not always an activity to pass the time or express happy thoughts.

Linguist Mark A. Sicoli, an assistant professor of anthropology who joined the University of Virginia’s faculty this year, studies a rare form of “whistled speech,” which is endangered in the few places around the world where it can still be found.

His 2014 documentary, “Whistles in the Mist,” won an Emmy Award for its presentation of whistled speech from indigenous people living in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. It was featured as an episode in the ongoing PBS television series, “In the Americas with David Yetman.”

In the rugged landscape of the Sierra Madre Mountains, clouds envelop the area much of the year, where Sicoli worked with Yetman and whistle speakers in the town of San Pedro Sochiapam.

“As far as we can tell, whistled speech in Mexico, including Sochiapam, is an ancient practice that predates the arrival of the Spanish by many centuries,” Sicoli said. When men tended agricultural fields on the mountainsides, they developed whistled speech to communicate over long distances. With the fog and steep terrain, they were likely well out of visual range, so instead of having no contact all day unless they hiked hours to meet, the men whistled – not just a few notes, but whole conversations.

The whistled speech in Sochiapam is part of Chinantec, a language that contains seven different tones. The whistles actually mirror the sounds of speech, using pitches and stresses, but without consonants and vowels. Men have used it in short back-and-forth conversations to say where they are, what they’re doing and to make plans.

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