The Magical—and Endangered—Whistling Language of Oaxaca

Chris Ford, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Chris Ford, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In the rugged cloud forests of northern Oaxaca, Mexico, the Chinantecan people communicate in one of the world's most unusual languages—not by speaking, but by whistling.

In the clip below, spotted by Open Culture, Dr. Mark Sicoli of Georgetown University and David Yetman of the University of Arizona visit the region as part of an episode for PBS's In the Americas with David Yetman. Their quest is to find out how many people still speak (or rather, whistle) the tongue, which is used to communicate across the hills and valleys of the mountainous terrain. Along the way, they discover how the language has been involved in the community's rites of passage, town meetings, gender norms, and cornfields. They also get a beaming crowd of schoolchildren to whistle "I'm tired," and witness a whistled conversation about a taco. Perhaps not surprisingly, the language is in danger of dying out—unless the youngest generation can save it.

As special as the language is, the Chinantecan whistlers of Oaxaca aren't alone: 42 examples of whistled human tongues have been documented, in the Amazon, Turkey, Greece, and the Canary Islands, to name just a few spots. The languages are usually found in places with high slopes or thick forests, where regular spoken communication is tricky. Whistling, it turns out, isn't just for the birds.

[h/t Open Culture]

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What Is a Scuttlebutt, and Why Do We Like to Hear It?

Photo by Courtney Nuss on Unsplash

Casual conversation is home to a variety of prompts. You might ask someone how they’re doing, what’s new, or if they’ve done anything interesting recently. Sometimes, you can ask them what the scuttlebutt is. “What’s the scuttlebutt?” you’d say, for example, and then they’d reply with the solicited scuttlebutt.

We can easily infer that scuttlebutt is a slang term for information or maybe even gossip. But what exactly is scuttlebutt, and why did it become associated with idle water cooler talk?

According to Merriam-Webster, a scuttlebutt referred to a cask on sailing ships in the 1800s that contained drinking water for those on board. It was later used as the name of the drinking fountain found on a ship or in a Naval installation. The cask was known as a butt, while scuttle was taken from the French word escoutilles and means hatch or hole. A scuttlebutt was therefore a hatch in the cask.

Because sailors usually received orders from shouting supervisors, talking amongst themselves was discouraged. Since sailors could congregate around the fountain, it became a place to finally catch up and exchange gossip, making scuttlebutt synonymous with casual conversation. The scuttlebutt was really the only place to do it.

Nautical technology made the scuttlebutt obsolete, but the term endured, becoming a catch-all word for unfounded rumors.

The next time someone asks you what the scuttlebutt is, now you can tell them.

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