The Unspoken Languages of the World

How native people have adapted language to communicate without words over great distances on remote islands and in dense jungles

Travel far enough and often enough, and you’ll pick up some phrases and local expressions to help you through your day, but there is another world to language that even the most worldly travelers never see: languages that go unspoken.

Across the globe, there are still places where inhabitants are not lost for words—even if you never hear those words. Whether because of distance or terrain, these cultures have developed languages that can cross steep valleys and thick forests—systems of communication used for hunters, herders and remote villages to communicate with each other. Some of those languages live on today.

The Whistling Languages of the World

On the small and mountainous island in the Canaries called La Gomera, Silbo Gomero is a language that employs a range of whistle sounds in place of words. In Spanish, “silbar” means to whistle, and the language of Silbo Gomero consists of four ”vowels” and four ”consonants” that when put together form as many as 4,000 words. This avian method of communication is believed by scholars to have arrived with the early African settlers as long as 2,500 years ago. And it can be heard for up to two miles. "Silbadors" were once considered a dying breed, but since 1999 Silbo has been a required language in La Gomera schools.

Oaxaca Mexico mezcal

Other similar methods of communication can be found among the closely related indigenous languages used by the Mazateco Indians of Oaxaca in Mexico. They are often seen whistling back and forth, swapping greetings or exchanging goods without cause for any misunderstanding. The whistling technique is not technically a language or even a code; it merely employs the rhythms and pitch of normal speech omitting the words. Mazatec languages lend themselves to it well because of the tonal sounds. Whistling is extremely common among young men but not women (young boys are taught the whistling when they learn to talk), and practitioners can develop whole conversations through whistling, all designed for used for communicating over great distances.

The Mazateco whistling is not the only such language in Mexico. In the Oaxaca, San José Chiltepec region of Southern Central Mexico, Sochiapam Chinantec is another Mexican language that uses whistling speech. Though only employed by the men and spoken principally by elderly speakers, it is nonetheless understood by all. It even has three words to distinguish the different whistle speech: sie for whistling with the tongue set against the alveolar ridge, jui for bilabial whistling, and juo for finger-in-the-mouth whistling. The method used depends on the distance involved. And, for the record, other similar whistling languages have been discovered in Turkey, Greece and China.

Humming to Communicate: The Amazon’s Pirahã People

Amazon rainforest jungle

A far more rare form of wordless communication is humming, yet deep in the Amazon rainforest, the Pirahã people, who chiefly live beside the banks of Amazon triburatry the Maici River, hum as their method of communication when hunting in the jungle. Humming has been employed likewise in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, formerly known as Chekiang. But humming is not as suitable or as common as whistling or drumming because it simply doesn’t carry nearly as far.

Talking Drums, Rhythmic Root Beats and More Musical “Talk”

In the Congo, the Kele people turn to their talking drums (ntumpane) to communicate. The talking drums allow for long-distance and rapid communication between villages, each of which had an expert drummer, intelligible to all around him. Then there’s the banging on the roots of trees carried out by the Melanesians on islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, the yodeling of the Swiss that was employed as a way to communicate between mountains by animal herders, the xylophones employed by the Northern Chin of Burma, not to mention the smoke signals of the American Indians. All active proved to be effective ways of getting the message out across difficult terrain.

The Clicks of South Africa’s Xhosa People

Xhosa homesteads, South Africa

Elsewhere are other kinds of speech sound that do not even make use of an air stream from the lungs. For instance the native speakers—over 7 million of them—of Xhosa, one of the official Bantu languages of South Africa, make use of words that consist of ”click consonants.” It’s tonal, and the same sequence of consonants and vowels can differ in meaning if said with a rising, falling, high or low intonation. These tones are never indicated in the written form. Today, the clicks are still in use although the area’s schools phase in English after the early primary grades.