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Neuroprocessing, Linguistics, and Cognitive Approach to Deciphering Whistles

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Linguistics
Wordcount: 2418 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Of the thousands of languages in the world, the whistling language is one of the most fascinating forms or langauge. The whistling langauge is an antient practice of communication which has been effective in transposing messages from afar. This article will be analyzing the brains workings behind the decoding of a whistle. I will be exploring from different angles such as the neuroprocessing, linguistics behind it, and the cognitive approach of the language.

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In the Canary Islands, the people of La Gomera have acquired a unique langauge that has accompanied their native tongue. Along with the Spanish language comes the language of whistling known as sylbo. The sylbo language is a whistling language which the people of La Gomera have practiced since their inheritance of the language from the previous inhabitants of the island known as the Guanches. The language has been declining but since the 1990’s, it has become a teaching subject in schools again to keep the langauge alive. The people of La Gomera are not the only group who can use such a technique though. To name a few, those who also practice this ancient language are the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains, the people of Anita, Greece which is known to them as sfyria, and the Hmong who reside in the southeast regions of Asia.

While living in countries with no effective mode of communication, whistling has become a useful system of transferring messages. Whistling for these people has been used for many reasons. The people of La Gomera use the whistle in farming and herding. Where a whistle today could be used to call in your pets for food a whistle here could also mean the same thing, but for the human ear. In fact, this is so because the sound of a whistle can be heard as far as five miles in open conditions, but it can also penetrate though forests where hunters whistle to locate each other through the dense shrubbery. This is the second usage of the whistle. As hunters roam about forests, in order to not alert any animals, whistling would be used since it can also be misheard as a bird calling or birdsong. Whistling can also be used as a weapon of war. For example, the Australian army once recruited Wam speakers from Papua New Guinea to whistle messages across the radio in order to confuse eavesdroppers. Robinson points out that while these uses are practical, the whistled speech is also used for other matters such as religious concerns, poetry, and romance as the Hmong people would do in courtship for singing or music (as cited in Moua, 2018). In each of these languages and culture, whistling can be conveyed by puckering one’s lips, the use of their fingers or knuckles, or blowing into a leaf or by a wood/reed flute, each of these techniques are able to transfer such sounds into meaning (Robson, 2017).

Julien Meyer specialized in the study of the whistling language and had revealed that fluent whistlers understand 90% of the whistling. This understanding comes from the fact that whistles are derived from the spoken language itself, meaning,

“whistlers emphasized that they whistle exactly as they think in their language and that an equivalent process is at play when they receive a message… and that ‘at the receiving end, the acoustic signal is mentally converted back into the original verbal image that initiated the chain of events” (Meyer, 2008).

I will discuss more or Meyer’s work in later paragraphs. Since whistles are projected from spoken language, we could assume that what is being conveyed will be easy to understand. Dr. Manuel Carreiras and his fellow colleagues conducted a study in 2005 about the neural processing of the whistling, specifically around the sylbo whistle. Their findings tell us that the “language-processing regions of the human brain can adapt to a surprisingly wide range of signaling forms” (Carreiras, 31). Langauge recognition is found in our left hemisphere of the brain, while visual perception is coordinated by our right hemisphere. With this knowledge, Carreiras had investigated which areas of the brain react to sylbo. 

First, we must understand that these whistles are all different considering all languages and cultures are different. Therefore, we must also consider which languages are tonal and non-tonal. The people of La Gomera speak Spanish, a nontonal langauge, meaning, the whistling following this would also constitute to that. 

Sylbo reduces the full phonemic inventory of Spanish to two phonologically contrasting vowels and four consonants. Whistled ‘words’ are formed by recoding the vowels and consonants of individual Spanish words into whistles that vary along a measurement of high to low pitches and differ with respect to the character of the melodic line (continuous or interrupted). So, users rely on repetition and context for the communication of short and simple, routine messages. The compositional, formant-like glides of sylbo can therefore function as a form of linguistic communication, provided that listeners know the rules of the whistled codification and can interpret the semantic content in the shared cultural context.


Dr. Manuel Carreiras and his colleagues studied the brain signals of whistle users and non-users by having their subjects listen passively to Silbo and Spanish as well as monitoring the cycles of Silbo ‘words’ and Spanish words blend in with silent periods. Upon this conduction, fMRI images were used to measure the variations of the brains blood-flow. Their results indicated that the “temporal regions of the left hemisphere that are usually associated with spoken-language function are engaged during the processing of Silbo in experienced Silbadores” (Carrerias, 2005) and the fMRI images displayed the same left-brain areas exhibited pronounced blood flow-a sign of intense neural activity as their participants listened to Spanish. However, when the subjects listened to the whistling these brain areas, which are associated with using and understanding language, showed activity only in the shepherds who use the whistling.

In both sylbo and Spanish, the left superior posterior temporal gyrus is stimulated, and the right hemisphere is activated by the parietal activation when the participants are passively listening and actively monitoring these languages. Carreiras indicates that in response to non-linguistic pitch changes, tones and complex sounds the brains’ activity increases in the right temporal lobe which may be associated with linguistic processing tasks. But Carreiras suggested there were no common cortical language areas for sylbo and for speech in non-whistlers and that “the areas activated during both Spanish and Silbo processing in ‘Silbadores’ differ significantly from those in non-whistlers” (Carrerias 2005).

To explain the science of how activation is processed in users of sylbo is due to the fact that whistled speech relies on the change of pitch and melody in creating distinctive acoustic patterns. Secondly, it serves a mode of communication. Carreiras and his team found that “it is the temporal-lobe regions implicated in language processing that respond, even though the signal is a whistle and the language is an unusual speech surrogate” (Carreias 2005).

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Onur Gunturkun composed a similar case study on a Turkish village’s use of the whistle language to support the theory that the whole brain is actively processing whistles. Gunturkun and his team used the dichotic listening paradigm to investigate whether whistling alters language asymmetries. When volunteers were listening to the Turkish whistling in just the right ear, their right ear did most of the processing as it links to the left hemisphere where information processing occurs. But when the whistling occurred only on the left side, the left ear and right ear did some work together equally. To conclude their study, they suggested that “a natural but acoustically different language can create a radical change in the organization dynamics of language asymmetries” meaning the brain will adjust as it can to make sense of incoming information (Gunturkun, 2015).


Julien Meyer has dedicated much of his life exploring the whistling langauge, upon his researches, he has come upon the cognitive process of the language looking through the bioacoustics of it. He takes into consideration of the linguistic process suggesting that the whistled forms of languages work exactly like spoken langauge; it contains a vocabulary, grammatical structure, and phonology (Meyer, 2004). While tone is important, pitch is just as crucial in analyzing this as it characterizes syllables and has a phonological signification. Meyer says that whistling transmits two components in one band of frequency: “the characteristics of the melodic line of the spoken words and the characteristics of their articulation” (Meyer, 2004). He has also discovered that within nontonal languages, phonemes of said spoken langauge are reproduced by specific levels of whistle frequencies for different vowels. For example, an “a” may be identified with a high-pitched whistle, but an “o” may give off a lower pitch. From switching one pitch to another, the consonants also change depending how this sound is altered (Meyer, 2017).


Within this cognitive method Meyer has found that whistlers, specifically those of La Gomera who have been practicing it for at least three years have developed a fluency. Meyer refers to a study conducted by Carreiras in 2003 that supported the neuroscience of the language. The study indicated that Brocas Area and Wernicke’s Area were triggered in the fluent people, but not in untrained ones (Meyer 2004).

Furthermore, distinguishing the difference between whether a langauge is tonal or non-tonal is important in decoding a whistle. Take the Syblo language for example, the people of La Gomera speak Spanish, a nontonal langauge. As said in the previous paragraphs, most fluent whistlers can decode a whistle with 90% accuracy. This is also possible through the top-down processing method in which our brains fill in gaps and automatically piece things together. “For example, take this sentence: C4N Y0U R34D TH1S? Though the letters and numbers are jumbled together, out brain picks up each word normally because of the natural code-cracking machinery that our mind is” (Moua, 2018). Such a process is the same with fluent whistlers. When you take the pitch and frequency of their native tongue and turn it into a whistling, there will be similar results, therefore recognizing what is being conveyed should be an easy task. In Meyer’s study of the langauge, he writes that:

whistlers emphasized that they whistle exactly as they think in their language and that an equivalent process is at play when they receive a message. They agreed that ‘at the receiving end, the acoustic signal is mentally converted back into the original verbal image that initiated the chain of events” (Meyer, 2008).

This being said, understanding the whistling language may be easier to decipher. But of course, just as each langauge is different, so are these whistles all around. A whistler of Hmong cannot understand a sylbo whistle, which is why whistling was also a great war tactic, instead of raising fires or ringing a bell, a simple whistle that could be disguised as a bird calling. In conclusion, our brain is a magnificent organ of the human body and there are many factors of how we can understand a whistle.




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