I blinked in the blinding sunlight as I drove off the ferry. I was in Greece, on the island of Evia, in search of the small village of Antia, which has a unique characteristic. Now I was on a mission to see and hear this particular characteristic for myself. I had heard of it, as I lived in Greece at the time, and a friend told me he had been there, gave me the name of the village and roughly where it was.
Strange, fascinating but dying?
I have a degree in Linguistics and am fascinated by all things to do with language, including unusual languages and the idea of language death. This happens when the last native speaker of a language dies, and with that, the language also dies, never to be heard again. Wikipedia reports that “As of the 2000s, a total of roughly 7,000 natively spoken languages existed worldwide. Most of these are minor languages in danger of extinction; one estimate published in 2004 expected that some 90% of the currently spoken languages will have become extinct by 2050.”
Antia is a very isolated place, with a reported population of only thirty seven in 2017. There may be even fewer now. The language used in this village is unique; alongside Greek, the inhabitants communicate by whistling. It isn’t shorthand, a signal, or a code – it’s a structured language. Only six of the remaining residents knew how to whistle when I visited in 2006, signalling its almost certain demise.
Whistling languages aren’t restricted to Greece; in Turkey there is the village of Kuşköy,and La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, also has its own version. Why do they do it? There are a number of proposed explanations, but one sensible reason is that a shepherd tending sheep in a mountainous area can communicate effectively with the village, or with another shepherd on another mountain by whistling, as the sound of a whistle carries further than a voice. It’s also quite handy if you want to warn miscreant friends that the police are in the village looking for them.
A Greek welcome
The road was long, winding and surrounded by mountains, and the heat was suffocating, but the views were stunning. A warm breeze eased the discomfort. There were huge wind turbines on the barren, brown, sun-soaked hills disturbing the silence; I had never understood how noisy they were. I couldn’t see any other villages and I felt as if I had entered an alternative world, only pulled back to reality by a small, perfectly white church under the turbines. It seemed like a long time had passed since I had left the ferry, and I was beginning to wonder if I was actually going to find Antia. At last, I saw the road sign and turned to enter the village. Until I reached the small collection of about a dozen houses, it was impossible to see, hidden in a small valley.
I parked my car near the only taverna, and hoped it was open; I was getting hungry. As I approached it, I saw someone coming towards me. She owned the place and greeted me. I explained why I had come and asked if she was open for food. There’s something about Greek hospitality that I miss now that I live in the UK. In a short time I had a meal in front of me and she and her father joined me. I was the only customer that day.
I asked about sfyria, the whistling language.Maria told me that she could understand it but couldn’t use it. Her father, Panayiotis, could do both. I tried a bit of field linguistics. ‘Can you whistle my name?’ Because it’s a rare (and probably non-existent) name in Greece, I wanted to know if he could whistle it phonetically, which he did without pause. That gave the clue that the language had its own phonetic ‘alphabet’. As to the structure of words and sentences, I was clueless when Panayiotis whistled some common phrases. And so the conversation continued, with me asking questions, and Maria translating as her father whistled. We chatted too about life in the village, where they only spent six months a year, and the rest of the time in Athens. They told me that children start learning around the age of 5, and that practice is important. The sad fact was that the younger generation weren’t interested in sheep herding and make off for larger towns and Athens. The language was dying.
I left them and their warm, welcoming company, excited that I’d experienced this phenomenon at first hand. It was one of those life experiences that stay in the memory, as vividly as the day I was there. I heard some years later that Panayiotis had passed away, and so, sadly, there was one less whistler.