Centuries-old whistling language of Béarn shepherds

A form of whistling is being taught as a language in schools alongside Occitan, an ancient language spoken in Languedoc.

The whistling language is used by shepherds in the Ossau valley in the traditional province of Béarn to communicate across distances of up to 2km.

Now it is being taught to young people in Béarn who are also learning Occitan.

Commands in the language can range from the simple greeting, “hello, what’s up?” to more sophisticated communication, such as: “One of my cows is sick – go down to the village quickly with Robert and call a vet.”

Since last year, Professor Philippe Biu has been teaching the whistling tongue at schools in Laruns and Pays de l’Adour as well as the University of Pau where he works.

“This university course is the only one of its kind in Europe,” said Prof Biu. “No other class in France teaches the whistling language at this level.”

The whistling language was first brought to light in the 1950s by acoustician René-Guy Busnel, who noticed that shepherds around Aas village in Ossau would use it to communicate across the valley.

But Prof Biu said it has a much longer history and is used throughout parts of Europe and beyond.

He said: “The language is still used nowadays in the Canary Islands, to transmit Spanish, and in the village of Antia in Greece, and in the Kuskoy region of Turkey.”

In 2013 Prof Biu and his colleagues discovered another version of the whistling language used by shepherds in the Atlas mountains in Morocco. “It is used to transmit Tamazight, the language of the Berber people.”

He said this provides a further clue as to the language’s origins: “We know that this technique was introduced to the Canary Islands by the Berbers several centuries ago.”

In the Canaries the language is known as the Silbo Gomero, which means “Gomeran whistle” and takes its name from the isle of Gomera where it is used.

Prof Biu said: “It isn’t impossible that it originated in Asia, and that it was then disseminated around the Mediterranean basin thanks to migration, conquest and trade.”

The language was initially taught by ear and passed on through generations in this way, but to introduce it to schools Prof Biu and his colleagues have adopted a teaching method pioneered in the Canaries.

Whistling language courses are being promoted by Lo Siular D’Aas, an organisation dedicated to preserving all aspects of Béarnese culture, including Occitan.

In fact the two tongues are a closer fit than one might think and Prof Biu said: “To be a true whistler, you must first know how to speak Occitan.”

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