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Julien MeyerA whistling world

Published in 2006Time to read: 1min 9s

Under siege by modern communications, whistled and drummed languages are fast disappearing and survive only in remote biodiverse hotspots where people live in isolation. French bio-acoustician and linguist Julien Meyer is preserving these ancient modes of communication, which are at the interface between language and music.

locationFrance, Vanuatu, Thailand, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil

Unknown to most people, and often considered as curiosities by linguists and acousticians, whistled and drummed forms of languages have been used the world over for centuries, if not millennia. In many areas of the world, especially in remote villages, often strong whistles resembling birdsong or sequences of sharp percussions cut through the air as local people send a long-distance message to those with whom they need to communicate.

Whistled and drummed forms of language belong to the people who use them. They are fascinating because they have been selected through generations to be adapted to the environments where these people live. I’m hoping to contribute to the revival of their belief in their own culture.

Julien Meyer was fascinated by these age-old practices that transform spoken sounds to notes and rhythms and are easily transmitted in natural environments. He has dedicated his skills to preserving a dozen whistled and drummed languages, which, while very different from the voice, are still intelligible as speech by trained people. Meyer has shown how these languages are good indicators of the vitality of traditional knowledge in endangered and little known regions of the planet. With the help of his Rolex Award, he also developed documentation on an interactive Internet site, The World Whistles, creating an archive and recordings dedicated to these fast-disappearing languages.

Meyer, who recently published a book, Whistled Languages: A Worldwide Inquiry on Human Whistled Speech (2015), is now a research fellow of the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions programme at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Grenoble for a project called Icon-Eco-Speech.

  • 16

    Whistled and drummed languages have been documented by Meyer

  • 30

    Kilometres, the distance over which talking drums can send messages


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