Stop texting, start whistling: A whistling language in Greece

Posted on 26. Aug, 2013 by in Culture

Texting is one of the most popular ways of communicating: we schedule a meet up, check in, share good news and bad news, even start an affair, by means of a mobile phone. Some populations, all around the world, communicate with a more “organic” way: whistling.

The inhabitants of some villages in South Evia (Νότια Εύβοια, Notia Evia) used, together with the Greek language, a whistle language (σφυριχτή γλώσσα, sfirihti glossa) called σφυριά (sfiria) in order to communicate. Spoken language was not enough, since people had to communicate outdoors over long distances.

The locals share stories about how this way of communication covered all their practical needs Sometimes, even set up weddings were arranged by whistling.  Nowadays there are only few whistlers (σφυριχτές, sfyrihtes) left. In  Andia (Αντιά)  a small village near Kafireas cape or Cavo D’oro, (Καφηρέας, Κάβο Ντόρο) only the elderly use the whistling language taught by their ancestors. The  Municipality of Karystos (Δήμος Καρύστου) has applied for the incorporation of σφυριά (sfiria)  into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“The Village that Whistles”, by Katerina Zoula («Το χωριό που σφυρίζει», Κατερίνα Ζουλά), 2010

Origins of the whistling language:

According to one theory, the area was inhabited after the Persian Wars (at the first half of the 5th century BC). The locals claim that this form of communication dates from Antiquity.

Form of the language:

The whistlers used to learn the whistling language at the age of five or six by their fathers.

A study by N. Xiromeritis and H.C. Sfyridis shows that σφυριά (sfiria) is based on the characteristics of the spoken language and follows the same rythm. There’s also an acoustical reduction of vowels: The five vowels of the Greek language [a, ε, i, o, u] are reduced to three [(a, o), (ε, u), i]

Downfall of the language:

The number of whistlers has been reduced: There are only few whistlers left in Andia and all of them are elderly.  Since their knowledge is not transmitted, it will soon be extinguished.

The replacement of whistling by other forms of communication: some younger people can decode the whistling, but they prefer to communicate by telephone.

Bad dental conditions: the dentures of the elderly prevent them from whistling.

Additional Resources for those who want to know more:

  • “Antia”, by Stavros Ioannou («Αντιά», Σταύρος Ιωάννου), 1980.
  • “Greek Odyssey”, Joanna Lumley, 2011.YouTube Preview Image
  • Association “Le Monde Siffle” (for francophones) http://www.lemondesiffle.free.fr/voyage/grece/antia.htm

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About Ourania

Ourania lives in Athens. She holds a degree in French Literature and a Master’s degree in Special Education for Children. Since 2008, she has been trying to contribute to the spread of the Modern Greek language and culture, so she teaches Greek to foreigners and participates in educational projects, professionally and voluntarily. She’s curious about anything but she’s intrigued mostly by topics related to language, history and culture, ethnic minorities and sensitive social groups, evolutionary biology, yoga, nature, and art. If she wasn't human she would like to be a monkey.

2 Responses to “Stop texting, start whistling: A whistling language in Greece”

  1. Zoë Dawes 1 April 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Thanks for this information about the whistling villagers of Evia. I saw the Joanna Lumley programme about it and do hope they can keep the tradition going to the next generation.

  2. Ourania 1 April 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    Thank you Zoe for your support :) I hope the same too.


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