Whistled languages, mundane and transcendental

whistle

Among the many endangered languages of the world, whistled languages have long been remarkably widespread (see the impressive wiki page).

Used mainly by pastoralists for long-distance communication, their vocabularies remained tied to rural tasks, and so they became more rare with the decline of agriculture, migration, and the advent of the telephone (a cue for “tweeting” jokes in the media). Inevitably, they have come to the attention of UNESCO “safeguarding” projects.

The wiki page gives a comprehensive list of locations around the world, Whistled languages are (were?) common in West Africa; in South America and Mexico; and they’ve been reported among the Taos Pueblo of New Mexico, the Yupik people of St Lawrence island west of mainland Alaska, and the Hmong in Vietnam; in India and Nepal, and New Guinea.

The videos I’ve been watching come from Europe and Turkey:

  • The silbo of La Gomera in the Canary Islands can be found online, such as this documentary by Francesca Phillips. It may also be used in the local bajadas religious processions—though this clip (see also here) doesn’t feature silbo, I can never resist a calendrical ritual:

  • In the village of Aas in the French Pyrenees it is largely defunct:

  • The sfyria of Antia on the Greek island of Evia:
  • The village of Kuşköy in Turkey is another focus of media attention:

Musical whistling is quite another topic, but I can’t resist featuring Tamás Hacki:

For vaguely related posts, see Music and the potato, and Cowbells

* * *

China: transcendental whistling
At a tangent from the mundane communication of whistled languages, one aid to Daoist transcendence in ancient China was what Victor Mair has called “transcendental whistling”—see the detailed wiki article, and a paper by Su-rui Lung, using research by Sawada Mizuho and Li Fengmao.

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The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Source: wiki.

Having previously been used to summon the soul, whistling became a means to summon animals, communicate with supernatural beings, and control weather phenomena—and indeed to “express disdain for the vulgar world”. Using the power of qi “breath”, it was all the rage in the 3rd-century CE—noted exponents including Ruan Ji and Xi Kang, [1] qin-zither-playing frontmen of the iconoclastic early punk band Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢 [Behave yourself, Dr Jones—Ed.]. Su-rui Lung comments:

Xiao [whistling] seems to have permeated all strata of Six Dynasties society, and practitioners included persons from almost all walks of life: recluses, hermit-scholars, generals, Buddhist monks, non-Chinese foreigners, women, high society elite, and Daoist priests. In general, poets, hermits, and people of all types in the Six Dynasties utilised whistling to express a sense of untrammeled individual freedom, or an attitude of disobedience to authority or traditional ceremony, or to dispel suppressed feelings and indignation.

Chenggong Sui 成公綏 (231–73; ha, another compound surname!) composed a wonderful Rhapsody on whistling (Xiaofu 嘯賦), which the devotee of early Daoist mysticism will find rewarding (without seeking a reward, of course). As translated by Douglas White (1996), it opens:

The secluded gentleman
In sympathy with the extraordinary
And in love with the strange
Scorns the world and is unmindful of prestige
He breaks away from human endeavour and leaves it behind
He gazes up at the lofty, longing for the days of old
He ponders lengthily, his thoughts wandering afar
He would Climb Mount Chi, in order to maintain his moral integrity
Or float on the blue sea to wander with his ambition
So he invites his trusted friends
Gathering about himself a group of like-minded
He gets at the essence of the ultimate secret of life
He researches the subtle mysteries of Tao and Te
He regrets that the common people are not yet enlightened
He alone, transcending all, has prior awakening
He finds constraining the narrow road of the world
He gazes up at the concourse of heaven, and treads the high vastness
Distancing himself from the exquisite and the common, he abandons his personal concerns
Then, filled with noble emotion, he gives a long-drawn whistle

At this point even I can see that a perky rendition of Always look on the bright side of life (“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, Don’t grumble—give a whistle”) may not be quite suitable. While that song doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the spiritual values of the modern West, it does at least make a nice contrast with those of ancient China.

Wiki cites further classics such as Ge Hong’s Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳, as well as the 5th-century Shishuo xinyu 世說新語, referring to Ruan Ji’s meeting with the aged hermit Sun Deng 孫登—a story taken up in the 1990s by avant-garde novelist Ge Fei. Whistling is a common topos in Tang poetry, and is described in some technical detail in the 8th-century Xiaozhi 嘯旨; but thereafter it seems to have gone rather quiet, at least in literary representation—does anyone know if it has persisted as a secret mystical technique down to today?

And all this is a far cry, or whistle, from the more mundane communicative functions that mainly concerned us above. An online mention of the Bai minority in Yunnan is elusive—I don’t want to tempt fate, but can it be that the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage juggernaut is missing a trick here?

With thanks to Alan Kagan for putting me up to this

[1] For Xi Kang, note the great Robert van Gulik’s Hsi K’ang and his poetical essay on the lute (1941). Note also François Picard, “Chine: le xiao, ou souffle sonorisé”, Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie 4 (1991)—thickening the plot by considering the xiao 蕭 end-blown flute, which remains almost the only instrument deemed suitable to play with the qin.

2 thoughts on “Whistled languages, mundane and transcendental

  1. Pingback: Compound surnames in Chinese and English | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Whistled languages, mundane and transcendental – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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