Back in the old days, when there was no electricity, ways of communication differed a whole lot from the ones we know today. Written letters used to find their destinations after lengthy rides in carriages, while high-pitched whistles traveled at the speed of the sound, delivering messages right to the ears of eager recipients. Yes, you read it just right…I am talking about whistling languages! Long before phoning becomes mainstream, rural communities in many countries created whistled versions of their languages to contact their neighbors and spread news. It was a key survival behavior in places so remote that transporting messages on foot would be an arduous option. It is believed that to date, 70 populations worldwide continue using this rather exotic means of communication. Who would ever imagine this reality in such an interconnected world full of gadgets?

During my master studies, I plunged in the world of Silbo Gomero, a type of whistled Spanish used in the Canary Islands. This whistling community is the largest one known today, and it is considered a world heritage by UNESCO. What fascinated me in my research was the lateralization of the brain. Our precious mastermind has a bilateral nature, which means that for certain tasks, we use one side of the brain; for others, both. In fact, it depends on the nature of the task. This is of particular importance for speech processing, in which the left side is used predominantly among most people. Yet, interestingly, whistled languages would have more importance in the right side of the brain. You may be asking yourself why this is of importance at all… Well, the outcome of such studies may be really helpful for people who have suffered damage to the left-hand side of the brain - due to a stroke, for example - or even people with communication problems related to conditions such as autism. Therefore, better comprehension on how whistled languages are processed at the brain level may offer a therapy strategy for such individuals.

In non-noisy areas, such as in the countryside, the distance that shouted words can travel is a mere 500 meters. With the variations in frequency during whistling, messages can reach an estimated 3 kilometers in distance. Wow! So, if you happen to be in the Canary Islands, take the chance to learn the whistled Spanish and then invite your friends over using such skills. I would be definitely enchanted with such an exquisite invitation… And hopefully the future generations will keep up with such a wonderful cultural heritage.

My main research interests are in neurolinguistics and neurosciences and my master’s project was done at the Biopsychology Department of the Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany with Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg and Prof. Onur Güntürkün. I am Pamela Villar González, a PhD student at the GIGA - Cyclotron Research Center in the University of Liége, Belgium.


Digital Art

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso