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Whistling down the wind

NSF Award:

RAPID: Documenting Whistled Speech Among Chinantecans  (University of Arizona)

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Before watches, electricity and cellular telephones became commonplace in Mexico, speakers of several languages from the mountainous state of Oaxaca used whistled speech for long-distance communication. With each passing year, the number of fluent whistlers declines. Whistled speech transforms a spoken language into musical pitches that can carry talk across greater distances than the voice can shout.

The study of whistled speech examines how humans create and perceive new representations of existing linguistic codes. It seeks to understand how speakers extract phonetic features of spoken language to communicate in challenging terrain and how listeners infer underlying speech forms from a reduced set of prosodic features,

For this NSF-funded study, an interdisciplinary research team consisting of Mark Sicoli of Georgetown University, David Yetman of the University of Arizona Southwest Center, and Dan Duncan of the University of Arizona worked with the last five men in the town of San Pedro Sochiapam who could proficiently use whistled speech. The team documented their work through high-definition videos of natural whistled conversations and experiments testing the intelligibility of whistled speech. They also interviewed the men about the historical role of whistled speech in the community, the decline of the practice, and the endangerment of the Chinantec language.

The researchers found that people fluent in whistled speech could whistle just about anything they could say in spoken Chinantec language and that the whistled language was based on the tones, stress, syllable structure and laryngeal features of spoken Chinantec. The whistled language includes features that are suited to its long-distance ecology including a turn-finality marker that lets the other participant know it is their turn to talk. The marker is similar to the term "over" used by radio operators.

The documentary materials are available as a public television broadcast, Whistles in the Mist: Whistled Speech in Oaxaca, and through the Sochiapam Chinantec Whistled Speech archive, an online linguistic repository of transcribed audiovisual recordings prepared for permanent preservation and providing a linguistic corpus for future research.

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  • a researcher listens as a man from san pedro sochiapam uses whistled speech
A researcher listens to whistled speech of the endangered Chinantec language.
Mark Sicoli, Georgetown University

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