• Alexandra Nikopoulou

Sfyria: a Greek Whistling Language Facing Extinction

© Kotsovolos Panagiotis/Shutterstock

In a small village called Antia, hidden on the on the slopes Mount Ochi of the second largest Greek island, locals have been herding their sheep for thousands of years. While on the surface their lives are not unique, it is once they conversing with each other that the people of Antia set themselves apart from the rest of the country: they whistle in order to communicate with each other. Antia’s locals have created an entire language, comprised only of whistles. The whistling language, or Sfyria (from the Greek sfyrizo, which means to whistle), is believed to be an ancient language that has existed for over 2500 years. However, the origins of this rare and endangered language are yet to be discovered. According to Atlas UNESCO, it has the least speakers amongst the European languages and dialects. Sfyria is a whistled version of spoken Greek, in which letters and syllables correspond to distinct tones and frequencies. The whistles can be distinguished according to pitch and whether they are interrupted or continuous. With practice, whistlers can convey any message. The locals insist on the fact that it should be interpreted as a language and not as simple signals. Its main difference from any other language is that a whistle can be heard up to 4 kilometers away, which means that it is able to travel 10 times further than speech. This happens because the sound waves of whistles are different than the ones of normal speech.

© Kotsovolos Panagiotis/Shutterstock

Many people believe that Sfyria was created in accordance to the topography of the island where Antia is located. The village is exposed to strong winds and its residents, most of whom are shepherds, had to find an alternative way of communication in order to be able to hear each other across the hillsides where they were occupied with their everyday activities. Others believe that the whistling language was a way of protection from robbers or other criminals, as crimes multiplied during the Byzantine years. Locals used whistling to alert others of forthcoming danger, since only they could understand the dialect. It is important to also note that whistling was means of communication between guerilla fighters during wars in later years. However, it was not developed as a comprehensive language. Others believe, regarding the origins of Sfyria, that it comes from people of Persian origins who inhabited the village after a battleship in 480 B.C.. Persian soldiers who were appointed to guard the village after the battleship were left there by their commanders and, throughout the years, passed on the language to the locals. Unfortunately, there are no signs to indicate the true origins of Sfyria and it is hard to tell what is accurate when it comes to the creation of the whistling language.

Sfyria had not been discovered by the rest of the world until 1969 after a plane crash. In March 1969, a private plane crashed on the mountain Ochi, near Antia. The residents of the village assisted the rescuers in their search for the missing pilot and used their whistling language to communicate with each other during the process. It was the first time others encountered this special form of communication.

Back in the 1980s, the locals tried keep the language alive by teaching it to their children when they reached the age of 6. However, the situation is quite different today. Over the years many of Antia’s residents left the village and moved to larger cities on Evia, or further away in Athens, and the whistling language gradually lost its speakers. Today, only 37 inhabitants are left in the village, and only six of them can speak Sfyria, the unspoken language. Antias’ best and oldest whistler, Panagiotis Tzanavaris, recently passed away and as older whistlers lose their teeth, many can no longer sound sfyria’s sharp notes. In 2010, Panagiotis Tzanavaris established the Cultural Organisation of Antia in the village’s closed-down, one-room schoolhouse. While speaking about the whistling language, he said “It’s our way of life, and if it disappears, so does the cultural identity of this village.” Antia’s best whistler even invited a team of linguists from Harvard and Yale universities in order for them to record the whistlers’ notes for future generations. He was also featured in a short documentary. Sfyria’s biggest obstacle is that it is a language that can only be taught verbally, which means that learning it represents a great challenge, as few people are able to teach it. The unspoken language has drawn the attention of many linguists who have tried to study it over the years, and have suggested that UNESCO list it under its protected languages.

In conclusion, Sfyria is a rare language that is spoken by only a few people. That means that the efforts to safeguard it are met with even bigger challenges. In 2016, the municipality of Karistos where Antia is located organized the first Festival of the Whistling Language to revive the interest in the language and ensure that it will not be extinct. The road to making sure the dialect of the Anita residents is preserved is still long, but it is worth the struggle to try and save this unique language. Today there are as many as 70 other whistled languages in the world, and they all exist in remote mountain villages like Antia, but Sfyria is believed to be the oldest, most structured and, unfortunately, the most critically endangered one.

About the Author

Alexandra is a PhD candidate and a researcher focusing in Middle-Eastern security, regional balance and tribal affairs. She is working in the non-profit sector in the fields of education and employment of young graduates in Greece and has significant volunteer experience, focused mainly on education around disabilities. She holds great interest in Indigenous history and tribal affairs, not only in the Americas but in Europe, Africa and Asia as well.

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