Suddenly, in the constant rustling of the Thai jungle, a clear, strong whistle cuts through the air. Meaningless to the uninitiated, this melodious phrase, resembling birdsong, carries precise information: hidden in the dense tropical vegetation, a hunter from the Hmong people is sending a long-distance message to his fellow-hunters about their plan for trapping a wild boar they have been tracking for hours.
Languages Facing Extinction
This event, like something from the ancient past, is by no means confined to one isolated group. Unknown to most people, and marginalized by linguists, whistled languages have been used the world over for millennia, but are now threatened with extinction within this generation or the next. Passionately interested in languages and all modern forms of communication, Julien Meyer, a 30-year-old French bio-acoustician and linguist, refuses to simply do nothing while a part of the world’s heritage is threatened by the movement of people from the countryside to the cities and by the emergence of new technology. Over the past 10 years, he has verified the existence of 34 whistled and drummed languages throughout the world, and devoted his skills and energy to studying, documenting and preserving a dozen of them. For his determination to safeguard a fast-disappearing, age-old practice, Julien Meyer has been selected as an Associate Laureate in the 2006 Rolex Awards.
Whistled languages communicate over distances like a mobile phone, but they are free and no technology is required. They faithfully transpose the grammar, syntax and, syllable by syllable, the vocabulary of the spoken languages they are based on, producing an accurate rhythmic and melodic copy of them. Other languages exist in drummed form, which is less precise and more repetitive, and is used more for making public announcements than for dialogue.
Whistled and drummed languages are used in Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, in remote areas which have a very rich biodiversity. They overcome distance — up to 30 kilometres for talking drums — and cut through background noise, demonstrating the extraordinary adaptability of groups living in mountainous areas and dense forest, where communication is a constant challenge. "Whistled and drummed speech unites humans and nature by means of language," Meyer explains. "Sound needs the natural environment as a carrier to propagate it over a long distance. In addition, these communication methods are a unique source of information about their users’ environment and social life."
The first studies of whistled languages were carried out in 1950 by Professor René-Guy Busnel. This famous French scientist, now retired, was the first to study this form of language in terms of linguistics as well as acoustics. Since then, however, whistled speech has raised little interest among linguists, and almost half a century went by before Meyer took up the cause of this fascinating method of communication.
In 1997, while studying at the Ecole Supérieure d’Ingénieurs (school of higher engineering studies) in Marseille, France, Meyer dreamed of working on languages and being able to apply his technical knowledge to concrete cases. He stumbled on an article about Béarnais, an extinct whistled language from the Pyrenees Mountains in France. It was an eye-opener for Meyer. "It struck me that whistled languages provided a natural link between telecommunication systems and human language," he recalls. He immediately immersed himself in the literature about this unusual subject and began planning visits to regions where people use whistled and drummed languages. He taught himself the spoken languages of some of these regions (he now speaks six languages) and, once he had completed his diploma in bio-acoustics, he set about acquiring the linguistic skills necessary to study whistled and drummed languages. During this time he discovered Busnel’s work, and was spellbound. Eventually they met, and from the first discussions, it was a meeting of like minds. "Julien is the inheritor of my scientific past," says Busnel, who was born in 1914.
Network for Study
Faithful to the pioneering thinking of the man he regards as his “oldest friend”, Julien Meyer was convinced that the key to understanding whistled languages lay in studying them acoustically as well as linguistically. In 2003, he travelled around the world, forging close links with whistling communities and master drummers in France, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, the Republic of Vanuatu, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Turkey and Greece. During his travels he recorded about 30 hours of whistled and drummed languages for subsequent analysis using the most advanced acoustic techniques. The recordings also provided material for his doctoral thesis on the intelligibility of whistled languages, written in 2005 for the University of Lyon 2 and the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), in France.
This was only the start, however, for the brilliant bio-acoustician had an even bigger goal in mind: to preserve this priceless cultural heritage at risk of constant erosion by modern technology — which could, ironically, also hold the key to keeping this heritage alive. Meyer will now set up, with the funds from his Rolex Award, an interactive Internet site featuring recordings, photographs and documentation on whistled and drummed languages. This project, 'The World Whistles’, will be undertaken with close cooperation with the people who use whistled and drummed languages. They will also contribute to the site and oversee the use of the data on it. "By giving them the opportunity to take over modern technology for their own use, and to communicate with other whistling and drumming people whose existence they never even dreamed of, I’m hoping to revive their belief in their own culture. Whistled and drummed languages belong to the people who use them," insists Meyer, for whom human beings are clearly more important than scientific results. "Respect for our fellow man is the first condition in acquiring knowledge."
Manuela Palma de Figueiredo
Published in 2006