Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Places where people 'talk' in whistles

Fans of the Marx Brothers will know the comic routines in which Harpo - the one who never speaks - communicates with his brothers through a frantic series of whistles and the honking of a horn. But they might be surprised to learn that there are places in the world where people really do speak to one another by whistling as part of everyday life.
The Mazateco Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, are frequently seen whistling back and forth to one another, exchanging greeting, or buying and selling goods, with no risk of a misunderstanding. Mazateco children learn the art of whistling almost as soon as they can talk.
Bilingual tunesters
A Mazateco can 'hear' the word that is intended because the whistler mimics ordinary speech so cleverly. Some of the Mazateco can actually whistle in two languages - their own Indian dialect and Spanish.
The Mazateco never use their fingers when whistling, relying entirely on their lips. When they were shown a photograph of people putting their fingers in their mouths to whistle, as Harpo always used to do, they could make no sense of it.
Although the Mazateco are unique in whistling to communicate over short distances, there are other regions of the world where people also 'talk' by whistling: an area of northeastern Turkey south of the town of Gorele, and La Gomera, on of the Canary Islands. These are both rugged, sparsely populated mountainous regions where people who might otherwise have to walk for two hours to speak with their neighbours simply whistle instead.

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