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The disappearing whistling language of Greece

How well can someone know Greece?


Whatever the answer is, it is sure that when in Greece one can always discover new hidden
places that will surprise him. So, even if Evia is well-known, the small village of Antia
remains unknown to many. But not to the linguists!
Antia is hidden deep in the south-east corner of Evia, above a maze of ravines, on the
slopes of Mount Ochi far away from well-known Karystos and beyond the mythical
landscape of the much-discussed “dragon houses”. Google Maps will not be your friend this
time because Antia is so remote that doesn’t exist on Google Maps.

Antia is home to the last whistlers of Greece.


“The whistling language of Greece –Sfyria as it is called- is effectively a whistled version of
spoken Greek” according to the linguists.

(Credit: Eliot Stein)

What is Sfyria

Its name comes from the Greek word sfyrizo, to whistle. Technically is not a language;
linguists refer to it as a “speech registrar”, like shouting or whispering. According to a Greek
linguist, Dimitra Hengen, “in sfyria, letters and syllables correspond to distinct tones and
frequencies. The grammar and the vocabulary remain the same but the sound comes out in
musical notes. This is, in fact, the biggest advantage of a whistled language as sound
waves can travel up to 4 km across open valleys and10 times farther than shouting. But for
remote places, or where the people work outside in the fields, this seems ideal.

How and when the Greek whistled language is discovered?

People who don’t know the existence of a whistled language, nothing is understandable.
That is why sfyria was discovered as a language code only in 1969 when an aviation
accident had occurred. As long as rescue teams were working behind the mountain,
searching for evidence, they heard a whole series of whistlings between the shepherds. Of
course, they couldn’t encrypt the meaning but it was clear enough for them that it was a
new type of communication.

Where Antia’s whistled language comes from?

The story behind this communicating language is lost in the centuries. Not even the few
people left who are able to use and understand Sfyria can recall how and when the villagers
of Antia began using it.
A possibility is that the language travelled at this area with Persian soldiers some 2,500
years ago.
Another scenario would be that this communicational system was developed during
Byzantine times as a secret way to warn each other against danger.
And there are more, but none of all these stories is more than assumptions.

The art of Sfyria in time.

A whistler can use Sfyria for long conversations, for simple or complicated situations.
Everything can be expressed. Even though, the villagers of Antia use nowadays this
whistling language mainly for short and casual communication, for messages and for
exchange of short info.

They learned how to communicate whistling from their grandparents, and they “practised
with the animals out in the fields” as they characteristically confess. “This was a basic
lesson in order to survive. When you are alone on the mountain, far away from anybody
else, the storm is coming or another danger is around … then you need a way to
communicate”.

“Strong teeth is what a good whistler needs” the old people who still live in Antia admit. And
now, this is a problem for the ageing population of the village.

It is a problem but not the most important. Antia is an extremely remote place. There is no
work. Life is connected with the cultivation of the ground or the flocks. That is why the last
generations have moved to big cities. But the structure of big cities does not allow for
whistling; so the transfer from the one generation to the other has been interrupted.

At the same time, most of the old ones have already died and the younger ones who have
been taught the Sfyria are not here.
And the village seems to be very quiet.

What linguists say about Sfyria and other whistled languages.

Same time, another linguist, Meyer, give us more food for thinking: “…whistled
communication is still a puzzle for linguists. Modernity seems to be the main culprit. When
the social structure and the way of life changes, the whole puzzle is reformed.
When the telephone finally arrived in Antia in the 1960s, it altered communication between
neighbours. Now there is only one phone and no mobiles, but this will be not always so…”.

Hengen said: “By nature, a whistled language is already much more threatened than
a spoken language because it’s much harder to reproduce. Unless something drastic here
changes, I foresee sfyria vanishing in the very near future ….”.

Today there are about 70 other whistled languages in the world, all in remote mountain
villages.

Sfyria believed to be older and more structured than many others and it’s also the most
critically endangered. According to the Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in
Danger, no other language in Europe – whistled or not – has fewer living speakers than
sfyria.

© Lato,
Het Griekse Taal– & CultuurCentrum van Amsterdam