The Pyrenean Village With A Rich Language That’s Whistled Rather Than Spoken

For centuries, the inhabitants of Aas, a tiny Pyrenean village in the Ossau valley spoke to each other by whistling and in the process evolved a rich language now being revived at nearby Pau University, and in some local primary schools and colleges.

The village of Aas where people whistle rather than talk (Credit Wikipedia)

The village of Aas where people whistle rather than talk (Credit Wikipedia)

Located on the flanks of the Green Mountain and near the GR 10, the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela (Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle in French) in Spanish Galicia, the 100 or so inhabitants of the village of Aas still live from farming cows and goats on mountain pastures and turning the milk into local cheese. Its geography means the village lies at the heart of a natural echo chamber which in turn led to the evolution of a complex but now obsolete whistled language that kept mountainside herders in touch with their families and each other in the days before landlines, walkie talkies, and the much later mobile phone.

Recently L’Express writer Michel Feltin-Palas visited the area, one of the birthplaces of Occitan, a regional language that is fiercely protected in this part of the country.

He reports that the whistled language is now on the syllabus of several educational establishments.

In the Laruns college (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), 50 students are enrolled in a whistled language course, a subject unlike any other to be found in France and certainly unique in continental Europe.

For centuries, he writes, the inhabitants of a small Pyrenean village in the valley of Ossau spoke to each other by … whistling, creating a language of rich expression which in very recent times has now inspired courses in elementary school, college and even at university.

During a visit to University of Pau this month he describes a somewhat surreal scene. “A large lecture hall in the faculty of letters at this most academic of universities and Philippe Biu, a professor of Occitan, seems at first glance to have gone mad.
Standing behind his desk, he suddenly puts two fingers into his mouth and starts to blow shrill whistles.
“None of the students appear surprised and all happily set about imitating him, some clearly much better at it than others. For the students are taking part in a course in the whistled language of Aas, a singular village where for centuries the inhabitants whistled to each other in the same way that birds still do today.”

Commemorative whistler plaque at the Aas Church

Commemorative whistler plaque at the Aas Church

Julien Mayer, a CNRS researcher in Grenoble, says the Aas whistled language is not some rudimentary code — one whistle for yes two for no for exmple– but rather an almost complete transposition of the local language: “It reproduces both syntax and vocabulary” he tells the magazine. “On the Canary islands and in Mexico they whistle in Spanish, in Turkey they whistle in Turkish and in Béarn they whistle in Béarnais one of the Oc languages spoken in southern France.”

René Arripe, a French writer born in 1948 in Aas, into a family of language whistlers is the author of a reference work on the language (Les siffleurs d’Aas, Imprimerie de la Monnaie, Pau, 1984 ) and its use in the 19th and 20th centuries. According to him the Aas whistled language went into irreversible decline 70 years ago after World War II. “The spread of landline telephones, and the motor car, the shrinking population of local shepherds, the decline of the Béarnais language in favour of French meant that in Aas fewer and fewer language whistlers were to be found. The village children who generation after generation had learnt the whistled language at their mother’s knee no longer found it useful and the few remaining whistlers became increasingly less interested in transmitting their language expertise. The last remaining fluent whistler in the village, Anne Netou Palas (born Carrerette) died in 1999 and apparently with her, the language itself. It was says René Arripe, a “language of emergency”, comprising short “imperative or interrogative” sentences closely related to the everyday needs and lives of the local shepherds and one which with a good wind could be heard up to 2.5 km away by everyone in the valley.

It was by sheer coincidence that the whistled language of Aas did not fade away into obscurity.

In 1959 René-Guy Busnel, a researcher at CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), one of the rare specialist in whistled languages, raised the subject during a radio programme. Marcel Gilbert, a Parisian lawyer, originally from the Ossau valley, heard the broadcast and alerted the researcher about the Aas whistlers. Until then Busnel had only been aware of two whistled languages in the world — on the Canary Islands and in Mexico. With a team of colleagues he set off to Aas for some research and filming but was alarmed to report that as it had fallen into disuse it was now a mere “vestige” language. “There are (in 1959 only around 30 language whistlers left in the village and they only know the language imperfectly,” he reported.

The Ossau Valley (Credit Wikipedia)

The Ossau Valley (Credit Wikipedia)

It was only in the 1980s that M. Busnel’s work was picked up, first in France and later by world media which descended on the village to report on this rare phenomenon. But they had come too late to help save an ancestral practise and when Anne Netou Palas died in 1999 most people were resigned to the whistled language dying out.

But not, says Express, Gérard Pucheu, a man from the region and an aficionado of the Ossau valley. “A Japanese visitor told me that in his country this kind of language archaeology would be considered a living national treasure and of great cultural value,” he said.

So M. Pucheu set off for the Canary Islands, where a whistled language is still used, taught in local schools and inscribed as part of Unesco’s cultural heritage, to learn the techniques and the language from local teacher Isidro Ortiz. On his return to France he set up Lo Siular d’Aas, an association dedicated to the whistlers and after a long, mainly fruitless, haul finally made contact with Philippe Biu, the Occitan lecturer, who recognised the opportunity of defending “a local heritage pearl and the Occitan language”.

Cover of les siffleurs d’Aas par René Arripe

Cover of les siffleurs d’Aas par René Arripe

Once having learnt the language himself M. Biu drew up a course syllabus at Pau University and encouraged teachers at the Bilhères primary school and the Laruns college to do likewise.

Today in this college in the Ossau valley 50 young pupils study the whistled language with great gusto. Elise Coulon, principal of the college, claims that the whistling used in the learning process helps childrens’ brains learn in a different way.

However not everyone is happy with this sudden revival of interest in the vestige of the Aas whistled language.

René Arripe says: “If they want to create a whistled language that’s fine but if they say they are teaching the Aas whistled language that is wrong. Students may learn some stereotypical whistled phrases but to suggest that these resemble the whistled language of Aas is intellectually dishonest. It took years indeed a whole life in many cases, for the shepherds to learn this language”.

Interestingly M. Pucheu agrees with him. “We are not trying to pretend we are reviving the Aas whistled language nor teaching it. We are simply seeking to pass on the techniques used by these now dead whistlers. We will never become accomplished whistled language ‘speakers’ because we have started too late. The aim is to enable pupils at all levels to re-appropriate the technique and make use of it as they wish in today’s environment.”

Surprisingly that is exactly what is happening says Express. “My colleague Baptiste and I have organised whistling phrases for our rugby games says Alexis, a final year student at the college. When I whistle a certain phrase to him he knows he must pass the ball to me on the inside”.

Mountaineering guides are also looking at the whistled language: “National park rangers and emergency rescue teams are often confronted by poor or no mobile reception in the area and whistled language could be a useful standby”.

Then there is the interest shown by tourists and visitors who after attending whistling language demonstrations at the Laruns cheese fair last October were intrigued and captivated. The local tourist authorities have now included the language among the attractions of the area.

Meanwhile on the scientific front M. Biu is preparing a Mooc – or internet-based open university type course — on the Béarnaise whistled language.

There may be no fluent language whistlers left now in this mountain region but at least the technique is being preserved and the heritage safeguarded.

Béarn, one of France’s traditional provinces is located in the Pyrenees in southwest France. Today the petroleum and aerospace industries are along with tourism and agriculture, the main activities. In Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan came from Béarn.

Story: Ken Pottinger

Read more on WHISTLING AS LANGUAGE here.

Watch this video demonstrating the whistled language, Silbo Gomero, still used today on the Canary Islands:

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