The whistled variation of an indigenous language spoken in mountain villages in the north of Oaxaca is in danger of being lost because few people still use the unique technique and younger generations are not learning it.
Sochiapam Chinantec is spoken in San Pedro Sochiapam and several other small towns in the Cuicatlán district of the state. But while people continue to speak the language, fewer are using its whistled form.
Whistled speech can be useful to communicate over long distances because the sound travels farther than normal speech or even shouting. People can conduct conversations despite being physically separated by up to a kilometer.
A University of Virginia linguistics professor who has transcribed whistled Chinantec conversations says the variant is just as rich as its spoken parent.
“. . . people can really whistle whatever they can say in the spoken language, even though there is more ambiguity in the whistled channel,” Mark Sicoli explained.
A translator in San Pedro Sochiapam estimated that only a few people remained proficient in whistled speech, explaining, “There is less of a need to whistle today.”
A failure to pass the language on to younger generations is the main cause for its decline but a dwindling interest in farming, where whistled speech has been common, is also to blame.
Declining coffee production has forced some Chinantec people to seek alternative opportunities in cities, further contributing to the wane of whistled speech while loudspeakers, walkie-talkies and to a lesser extent cell phones have made the practice largely superfluous.
Another linguist, David Foris, said that before the introduction of walkie-talkies it was common to hear men making plans by whistling. While women understand whistled speech, they rarely use it, he said.
The whistling dialect is based on 31 tone-stress distinctions and both past and present tenses can be conveyed.
While it is generally mutually intelligible among those who have learned the language, it is not foolproof. One local farmer recalled an episode when he responded to what he thought was someone whistling to get his attention.
“Here I am,” he whistled back but received no response. It turned out he had been in conversation with a bird.
Whistling has also been used in other indigenous languages in Mexico such as Mazatec, Zapotec and Mixtec and variations of the shrill communication form are found across the world from the Canary Islands to the French Pyrenees as well as Greece, an Alaskan island and Papua New Guinea.
However, as in Oaxaca, whistling as a form of communication is gradually dying and with it a unique tradition and social world.
Whistles in the Mist — In the Americas with David Yettman