If you’ve ever walked through some of the barrios of New York or Los Angeles, or even just sat through a family barbecue, you know that we Latinos are master chifladores. Whether it’s to grab someone’s attention or to harass a passing woman on the street, any congregation of Latinos is inevitably punctuated by that characteristic high-pitched whistle that can be miraculously heard over a dozen blocks away. But in the highland cloud forests of Oaxaca, the Chinantecan people take this whole idea a few steps further, with a complex whistled language that has helped the townspeople communicate across long distances for generations in the region’s rugged, misty terrain.
Unfortunately, as American social scientist and television personality David Yetman reveals in the 26-minute documentary Whistled in the Mist: Whistled Speech in Oaxaca, Chinanteco’s idiosyncratic form of communication could be within 10 years of extinction. This is because the whistled communication is really only a supplement to the tonal highland Chinanteco dialect, and one that is becoming less and less relevant to the vicissitudes of modern life; police now use walkie-talkies, for example, and workers simply arrive on a fixed schedule rather than awaiting a whistled call from their employer.
But luckily, there are some very committed linguists, like Dr. Mark Sicoli, who are taking concrete steps to document this speech and leave a legacy for future generations to embrace as they see fit. In Whistled in the Mist, Dr. Sicoli joins Yetman on a walk through the town of San Pedro Sochiápam in Northern Oaxaca, where they speak to locals about this linguistic heritage and watch it in action with some master whistlers.
While this form of speech is rapidly falling out of favor, even with experienced speakers growing fatigued after long conversations, the panorama isn’t entirely bleak. Young schoolchildren still understand the basic vocabulary, and more importantly, Dr. Sicoli states that many times a language can be lost in one generation only to be recuperated and re-evaluated by the next. Thanks to efforts like Whistled in the Mist, both the people of San Pedro Sochiapám and the world at large can appreciate the unique cultural patrimony of this language and take concrete steps to preserve it into the future.