For some 2,500 years, residents of the mountainous village Antia on the island of Evia have used an astonishing language that only they understand. A whistled language. Nowadays there are only six people left who can ‘speak’ it, writes a BBC Travel report.
“Hidden deep in the south-east corner of the Greek island of Evia, above a twisting maze of ravines that tumbles toward the Aegean Sea, the tiny village of Antia clings to the slopes of Mount Ochi. There are no hotels or restaurants within 40km, and the hamlet is so remote that it doesn’t exist on Google Maps,” writes the BBC traveler.
The inhabitants of Antia use a remarkable whistled language that resembles the sounds of birds to communicate across the distant valleys.
The language is known as “sfyria” and it is one of the rarest and most endangered languages in the world – a mysterious form of long-distance communication in which entire conversations, no matter how complex, can be whistled. For the last two millennia, the only people who have been able to sound and understand sfyria’s secret notes are the shepherds and farmers from this hillside hamlet, each of whom has proudly passed down the tightly guarded tradition to their children.
As in the last few decades, Antia’s population has dwindled from 250 to 37, and as older whistlers lose their teeth, many can no longer sound sfyria’s sharp notes. Today, there are only six people left on the planet who can still ‘speak’ this unspoken language – and one of them recently invited me to Antia so I could meet the last whistlers of Greece.
No-one can recall exactly how or when the villagers here began using sfyria – which comes from the Greek word sfyrizo, meaning ‘whistle’ – to communicate.
Some residents speculate that it came from Persian soldiers who sought refuge in the mountains some 2,500 years ago, others claim the language developed during Byzantine times. There’s even a belief that in ancient Athens, they’d post whistlers from Antia on the mountaintops as sentries so they could signal an imminent attack on the empire.
Sfyria was only discovered by the outside world 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 and became enchanted by their cryptic code.
According to Dimitra Hengen, sfyria is effectively a whistled version of spoken Greek, in which letters and syllables correspond to distinct tones and frequencies. Because whistled sound waves are different from speech, messages in sfyria can travel up to 4km across open valleys, or roughly 10 times farther than shouting. (more in amazing BBC report Greece’s disappearing whistled language)
A Sfyria demo video with English translation posted by Scientific American in November 2016
Whistled language is rare compared to spoken language, but it is found in cultures around the world. It is especially common in tone languages where the whistled tones transmit the tones of the syllables (tone melodies of the words). This might be because in tone languages the tone melody carries more of the functional load of communication while non-tonal phonology carries proportionally less. The genesis of a whistled language has never been recorded in either case and has not yet received much productive study.
Whistled languages exist also on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands Silbo language-.
Other whistled languages exist or existed in such parts of the world as Turkey (Kuşköy, “Village of the Birds”), France (the village of Aas in the Pyrenees), Mexico (the Mazatecs and Chinantecs of Oaxaca), South America (Pirahã), Asia (the Chepang of Nepal), and New Guinea. They are especially common and robust today in parts of West Africa, used widely in such populous languages as Yoruba and Ewe.
PS the only whistled communication I could produce when I was a child was during a favorite game where we would cut a piece of thin grass – something like wild growing cat nip-, put it between our two thumbs and whistle through it. 🙂
Fascinating! I saw this on BBC’s Joanna Lumley Postcards documentary two days ago and was very pleased to read this excellent report.Thankyou! I have lived in beautiful Greece for 33 years but didn’t know this place existed! 🙂
Excellent! I read something about whistled languages a while back, but this particular area wasn’t mentioned. In fact it seems to me to be the most complex and complete of the whistled languages, as from what I understand most whistled languages convey pretty basic stuff, like “Wolves in the area!” or whatever. I’ve not come across one that was actually conversational. Yes, very interesting. I’ve not been in that part of Greece – maybe I should go! 🙂
It sounds very similar to birdsong — and in particular, to the extended song of male blackbirds. This also raises the question whether birdsong is actually complex communication akin to language.