Could Whistling Be the Forerunner of Language?

The origins of human language have long been a source of debate for linguists, anthropologists, and biologists alike. When compared with other forms of communication throughout the animal kingdom, like birdsong or the vocalizations of mole rats (Language Magazine, Feb. 2021), human language is somewhat peculiar in its level of complexity. Past theories have pinned the origins of human language on different behaviors and phenomena—some theorists propose that both language and musical abilities evolved out of a primitive “musilanguage” mechanism. Others believe speech evolved from complex gestural systems resembling sign language. A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.689501/full) presents a third potential origin: whistling. Whistled languages are a relatively rare form of human communication—there are only about 80 documented across the world, mostly in rural areas. The study, conducted by researchers in France and the U.S., uses recent advances in our understanding of human whistled language to better understand the whistling sounds that dolphins use to communicate among themselves.

“The principle of whistled speech is straightforward: people articulate words while whistling and thereby transform spoken utterances by simplifying them, syllable by syllable, into whistled melodies,” the researchers write. “It constitutes a natural traditional means of telecommunication that permits spoken communication at long distances in a large diversity of languages of the world.” The team of researchers believe whistled languages could be useful in tracing the evolution of human language.

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