The Whistled Language of Greece

September 27, 2017 10:00 am

Whistled speech is a fascinating phenomenon. (…) It survives exclusively in environments where human communication is extremely difficult, such as dense tropical forest and steep mountain valleys. Today, linguists and neuroscientists are intrigued by whistled speech, which can convey words and complex sentences while using only a very limited range of vocal sounds. (…) In the fifth century BC, Herodotus mentions it in his Melpomene, and it even features in several Chinese treatises from the second to eighth centuries AD, showing that the practice also existed in the Far East” (Meyer, 2017). The inhabitants of the village of Antia, on “the Greek island of Evia,” use a whistled language “to communicate across the distant valleys.” Unfortunately, “it’s also the most critically endangered” (Stein, 2017).

The Whistled Language of Greece - Antia

This “form of long-distance communication” is known as sfyria and “entire conversations (…) can be whistled.” For two thousand years, this language has been passed down through generations of shepherds and farmers (Stein, 2017).

Sfyria (σφυριά) “comes from the Greek word sfyrizo, meaning ‘whistle’” (Stein, 2017). “Similar to the whistled language of the Canary Islands, Silbo Gomero, this one also developed for pastoral purposes and as warnings before enemy invasions.  This linguistic relic of a more militaristic era in Greece likely arose from the Persian wars 2500 years ago. Villagers date the language as 1500 years old, however this translates to the Byzantine-Sasanian wars, during which the battles took place in Anatolia not Greece” (Alpha Omega Translations, 2013). Nevertheless, this language was only acknowledged outside of Antio in 1969, “when an aeroplane crashed in the mountains behind Antia. As the search crew went out to look for the missing pilot, they heard shepherds volleying a series of trilled scales back and forth across the canyons” (Stein, 2017).

However, the population of Antia has decreased “from 250 to 37” and “there are only six people left” who can still communicate in this language. The younger generation has moved to Athens, because it is very difficult “to earn a living or raise a family” (Stein, 2017).

Panagiotis Tzanavaris, “Antia’s best whistler,” is currently doing everything he can to preserve sfyria. He established “the Cultural Organisation of Antia” in 2010 and, in 2014, “he welcomed a team of linguists from Harvard and Yale universities to come record the whistlers’ notes for future generations.” Panagiotis Tzanavaris has also been teaching sfyria to “a 31-year-old courier” from Karystos (Stein, 2017). Last year, the language was featured in the following documentary:

The Making of “Memory of, memory of, memory of” from Onassis Foundation USA on Vimeo.

‘For years, the people in Antia have been talking about a disappearing language,’ (…) ‘But with your help, maybe we can start talking about a language that survived.’ (Stein, 2017)

You can find out more about sfyria and whistled languages in the sources below.


Sources:

  • Alpha Omega Translations (2013) “Whistled Languages: A Disappearing Relic from Antia, Greece”. Available at: http://bit.ly/2hvIOkM (Accessed 26 September 2017).
  • Meyer, Julien (2017) “The Fascinating Art of Whistled Speech” in CNRS News. Available at: http://bit.ly/2y4Rauq (Accessed 26 September 2017).
  • Onassis Foundation USA (2016) The Making of “Memory of, memory of, memory of”. Available at: https://vimeo.com/158352516 (Accessed 26 September 2017).
  • Stein, Eliot (2017) “Greece’s disappearing whistled language” in BBC. Available at: http://bbc.in/2xCcOol (Accessed 25 September 2017).

Written by Pedro Ramos – Translator, Social Media and Content Manager, Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg).

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