Hmong Whistle Language
By Jesse Sample
The communicators of the Hmong whistle language reside in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The sound has been known to carry for 8 kilometers. If that is true, then we can observe its utility in very basic terms, draw a quick conclusion, pull off our thinking caps, and go back to watching Ozark on Netflix.
However, upon consideration we can observe a deeper context. The Hmong people are located in the geographic regions of China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. What do all the languages of these nations have in common? They are tonal. What do I mean by “tonal?” What I mean by that, is that the very same words mean different things when specific tones are applied. There are 7-8 tones in the Hmong language. For an analogy to demonstrate some contrast, one can say in English, German, French or Spanish the phrase, “I want ice cream” in a broad spectrum of tones, and anyone familiar with that respective language will know what they mean, hand them their cone and send them off into their blissful ice cream experience. That is not the case with Mandarin and the other languages of that region. The young Chinese girl behind the counter in the ice cream store might think they are trying to sell her a car. So, it might not be unreasonable to consider this particular feature to have a regional trait.
What if it is something else? Chisom Njoku, a contributor to the guardian, writes “their language is perhaps most beautifully expressed during a now rarely performed act of courtship, when boys wander through the nearby villages at nightfall, whistling their favorite poems between the houses and if a girl responds, the couple then start to date.” If our source is to be trusted, then the implications of that are immense. Could it be a holdover from our ancestors or a mating ritual shared with some of the animals of the region? Maybe. But if that is so, why don’t the Vervet monkey species of East Africa recite likes of Dylan Thomas and Yeats, along with their warnings of nearby predators? This seems a bit more sophisticated than an unmodified hand-me-down from the animal kingdom at large.
Chisom also writes that while helping farmers “to communicate across their fields, it also helps hunters to call to each in the forest while hunting for game.” This lends itself to a whole different set of implications. There is a very practical reason for one hunter to communicate with another without wanting to spook the prey. Maybe the staying power of this whistle language is due to its close association with the attainment of food. That rings with a bit more truth. Where Hemmingway showed us how good the English language could be through the lens of hunting, the Hmong show us the sweet elegance of their humanity through the same medium. Food is real and death is real and both food, the supporter of life, and death, the imminent reminder of its scarcity, inspire love. Maybe that’s why the boys of in these villages whistle poems by the houses of girls they’d like to date.
David Robinson of the BBC takes a deep dive into this phenomenon and cites other cultures from all around the world who share this style of communication. The Inuit hunters of the Bering Strait communicate by whistling while hunting whales. The Wam tribe of Papau New Guinea were employed by the Australians to whistle communications that would evade the Japanese in WWII. Kuskoy, near the Black Sea, is a place where “shepherds whistle messages across the mountain plateau, while fishermen use them to cut through the roar of the river in the valley”
German scientist Onur Gunturkun at Ruhr University Bochum ran a series of experiments on some of the people of Kuskoy (which literally translates to “village of birds”) where subjects reported what they heard when presented with “Pah” in the their left ear and “Tah” in the right. Most of us would hear “tah” first because it would reach the language processing center of our brains first. But among this tribe, he reported, “Rather than favoring left or right, they were equally likely to discern whistles from either direction – suggesting that both sides of the brain were being co-opted to make sense of the signals. The asymmetry was gone. Both hemispheres shared the work.”
Aniruddh Patel at Tufts University in Massachusetts says, “(Whistled languages) seems to sit on the border of music and language.” This can inspire one to consider that maybe this method of communication, at first appearing primitive, could actually be highly sophisticated and advanced. Why should language be anything less than artful, nuanced, and elegant? Maybe that’s how Stevie Ray Vaughn and Santana affect us so deeply. They were working on a conversational level. It’s not just notes on a staff. Perhaps a man of God, giving a sermon from every cell of his being, is communicating something far more than words on a page.
After researching this unique and beautiful custom, I am left with more questions than answers. My questions are not just limited to wondering about the lives of a people thousands of miles away. My questions cut to the core of what I value and how I spend my time. I do, however, find myself better calibrated to my goals as an artist and, more important, a human being who can recognize beauty.
Listverse.com. Michael, M. 10 Extraordinary Languages That Do Not Involve Speaking. August 10, 2018. Accessed Aug, 7 2022 (8:29 PM EST)
stolaf.edu. Hmong Language. Cha, Dia, Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen. Field Guide to Hmong Culture. Madison, WI: Madison Children Museum, 2004. Accessed Aug, 7 2022 (9:20 PM EST)
Guardian.ng. Njoku, C. The Asian Tribe Where They Interact by Whistling. April 3, 2019
(6:18 AM EST) Accessed Aug, 7 2022 (9:40 PM EST)
BBC.com. Robson, D. The Beautiful Languages of People who talk like Birds. May 25, 2017. Accessed Aug, 7 2022 (10:17 PM EST)