Thursday, January 21, 2010

Debate: Language or Communication?

I first heard about the whistled language of Gomera from a student in my Introduction to Linguistics course; as soon as class ended, I YouTubed "whistle language" and found this video.

It's a fascinating display.  My question for you is whether the "whistle language" is truly a language or is actually a communication system.  For anyone unfamiliar with the differences between the terms language and communication system, one primary distinction between the two is that humans are said to have language while animals have communication systems.  Animals can communicate specific needs (such as danger, food sources, or mating rituals) but do not have full-fledged languages that allow them to produce new and creative utterances, abstract notions (they can only address the 'here and now'), and pragmatic features like sarcasm or humor.  Language, on the other hand, allows humans to talk about any chosen time period, focus on any person--real or fictional, discuss theory, produce unique utterances that have never been used before but still have meaning, and use intonation and pitch to show emotion in speech.

What do you think?  Is the "whistled language" a communication system?  Or a language?


  1. Would this be similar to Morse Code, or talking drums or anything of that nature?

  2. Billy, I think that's an adequate comparison. Okay, more than adequate--good. The part I can't figure out is if "speakers" of the whistled language can have the suprasegmental (overlaid) features of language like intonation. For example, could a speaker use intonation to portray sarcasm in the language? If so, the whistled language would stand apart in that way from Morse Code and talking drums. Even Wikipedia didn't have an answer to my question... If you happen to run across anything that analyzes whistled languages, I'd love to hear about it.