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Whistled Languages Reveal How the Brain Processes Information


This article by Julien MEYER, researcher in the VSLD Team, who have been studying whistled speech in mountains and jungle across the globe, is published online in the journal Scientific American.

Before electronic communications became a ubiquitous part of people's lives, rural villagers created whistled versions of their native languages to speak from hillside to hillside or even house to house.
For linguists, the study of whistled speech has helped demonstrate the capacity of the human brain to recognize words and sentences in an acoustic signal that carries less information than that produced by the human voice. A given whistle’s single frequency lacks the harmonics of the voice. Yet even this lone modulated frequency fulfills the essential requirements of an actual language in clearly communicating information. Whistled speech is therefore an important means to explore the cognitive capacities of our brain to communicate in an untraditional way.

Curling the back of the tongue enables Antia’s Kiriakoula Yiannakari to speak to other villagers in whistled Greek. Credit: Eirini Vourloumis

Julien MEYER, researcher in GIPSA-lab (VSLD Team) is a linguist and bioacoustician at the French National Center for Scientific Research and at the GIPSA-lab in Grenoble, France. His research focuses on phonetics, language cognition, and language and rural communities. He runs the Icon-Eco-Speech project and is a co-founder of the World Whistles Research Association, which documents and safeguards whistled languages.

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