I am currently visiting the Manassas Battlefield Park in northern Virginia, where the two battles of Bull Run took place during the US civil war in the 1860’s. It’s amazing to follow the strategies of how the generals on each side placed their troops in anticipation of battle. A major part of that process was the need to gather information about the other side – how many soldiers, how much artillery, where located, etc. There was also the need to communicate within armies during the battles, particularly among groups of the army separated out on the flanks and in other configurations. No telephones or Internet were available, but they did have the telegraph, signal flags, and signal rockets (so-called wig-wag).
As far as I know, they did not use a form of communication which was highlighted in a story on NPR this week: whistling. We’re not talking about whistling songs or whistled cat calls, but rather a fully functioning, long-distance whistling language. The story was about a German scholar studying Turkish whistling in northeastern Turkey, which he fears may be dying out, as mobile phones make long distance communication more efficient (and more private). According to the story, whistled Turkish can be heard as far as 4 miles away. A recent story in the New Yorker discusses whistle Turkish.
This is not the only example of a whistled language. One of the most studied is Silbo Gomero, which is whistled Spanish used in the Canary Islands. It was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009. Silbe Gomero is complex, using the tongue, lips and hands and requiring users to vary the frequencies at different speeds. Whistled speech is also used in Sochiapam Chinantec in Mexico.
Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero