Sfyria: This Rare Greek Whistling Language Is Disappearing Fast
Nestled among the slopes of Mount Ochi to the south of the second largest Greek island, Evia (also known as Euboea), lies the tiny hamlet of Antia, so small that it doesn’t even show up on Google Maps. But this tiny village, tucked away in the remote hillsides of Greece, is home to one of the world’s most fascinating cultural practices: sfyria.
What is Sfyria?
Sfyria (also spelled sfiria) is the name given to the ancient Greek whistling language native to Antia, believed to have existed for over 2500 years. It is the only whistled language in Greece – and one of only two in all of Europe.
A whistled language? You read that right.
For millennia, the shepherds of Antia have been using whistled speech to communicate with each other across vast distances. This is because whistled sound can travel 10 times farther than even shouting – up to 4km (2.5 mi)!
The name sfyria comes from the Greek word sfyrizo, which means “to whistle.” Locals and experts consider sfyria a language, though, technically, it is what linguists call a speech registrar, akin to whispering or shouting.
Rather than being its own language, sfyria is actually a whistled version of modern Greek, where the letters, words and syllables are whistled instead of spoken. The grammar and vocabulary all remain intact, allowing sfyria “speakers” to carry on entire conversations – even the most complex – across long distances.
How can people “speak” in whistles? Letters and syllables correlate to distinct tones and frequencies. Each whistle can be distinguished according to pitch and whether it is interrupted or continuous. Since sfyria whistlers emulate the rhythm of spoken Greek, trained listeners can “decode” the whistled message. With practice, whistlers can convey any message they like!
An Ancient Mystery: The Origins of the Greek Whistling Language
Whistling languages go back a long way in history, and their origins were likely eminently practical.
The first undisputed historical proof of the existence of a whistling language is found in Le Canarien, a logbook written by two Franciscan priests who accompanied the French explorer Jean de Béthancourt in 1402 on his quest to conquer the Canary Islands. There, they refer to people who spoke “with two lips as if they had no tongue”. Research has shown that what they most likely witnessed was whistling – a whistled form of the local Berber language.
Heading back to Antia, Greece, it’s not clear how the sfyria whistle language started, but there are many theories.
Some of the more colourful theories place the origins of the Greek whistling language in the crime-ridden Byzantine era, or in the pre-Christian era. As the first story goes, locals used whistling as a secret way to alert others against danger from rival villages or marauding pirates, since only they could understand the dialect. The same communication technique was used between guerilla fighters during later wars.
Another version recounts Persian soldiers fleeing into the highlands after losing the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. These soldiers – who had previously been guarding Greek prisoners in the Karystos area – used a whistling language to send “encoded” messages and communicate with each other without revealing their locations. Supposedly, the area’s locals picked up the practice after this.
Most likely, though, the roots of the sfyria language lie in the land itself – the mountainous topography of Southern Evia – and the traditional lifestyle of the shepherds who live there. With people dotted across the hillsides, each tending their flock, whistling turns out to be a very practical way to send each other messages.
When Was Sfyria “Discovered”?
Although the sfyria language has been “spoken” for several centuries, its existence was completely unknown outside of its tiny hamlet until surprisingly recently.
In March 1969, a private plane crashed on Mount Ochi, near Antia. The residents of the village assisted the rescuers who, in their search for the missing pilot, ventured into the dense forests of the mountains. Naturally, the locals used their whistling language to communicate with each other during the search-and-rescue mission. It was the first time outsiders had ever heard sfyria.
Imagine the rescuers’ surprise at learning that what sounded to them like birdsong were actually entire conversations carried out across the mountains!
How Many Whistling Languages Are There?
Whistled languages are not unique to Greece. Actually there are dozens of examples all over the world, mostly in mountainous areas. But among them all, sfyria is the most critically endangered.
Today there are as many as 70 other whistled languages in the world. Julien Meyer is one of the world’s foremost researchers of whistled languages, seeking to understand the intricate mechanisms of whistled speech and also forming intercultural networks to study whistling languages. He speculates that whistling might even have predated spoken speech.
Other whistling languages include Gavião in the Amazon; the Mazatec and Chinantec whistled languages in Mexico; Béarnais Ossalois in the Pyrenees; and the Akha and Hmong whistled languages in Southeast Asia, among others.
The most robust and probably best-known whistling language is silbo gomero, practiced in La Gomera in the Canary Islands. Like sfyria, the name silbo comes from the Spanish word for “to whistle,” silbar, and silbo speakers are referred to as “whistlers,” silbadores. Silbo Gomero was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
Another of the world’s whistled languages is that of Kuşköy, Turkey. The so-called “bird language” from Turkey’s northern Pontic Mountains joined silbo gomero on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2017.
One of the World’s Rarest Languages Facing Extinction
According to UNESCO, silbo gomero is the only fully developed whistled language in the world practiced by a large community – more than 22,000 people. By contrast, sfyria has about 6 remaining speakers – and that number is dwindling fast.
In fact, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, no other European language – whistled or otherwise – has fewer living speakers than Greece’s whistling language.
So why isn’t it on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List? Elements of intangible cultural heritage make it onto UNESCO’s list at the request of nations; so far, Greece has not made a request to have sfyria listed.
Why is Sfyria so Endangered?
Back in the 1980s, the locals tried keep the language alive by teaching it to their children, starting at the age of 6. Back then, every member of the village could whistle. The situation is quite different today.
One of the main threats has to do with an ageing population. Not only have many whistlers passed away, some of those still among us are losing their teeth, making it hard for them to “pronounce” the whistled intonations.
But more than that – the times they are a changing. Over the years many of Antia’s residents have left the village to move to larger cities, and the way of life for those who stayed has changed drastically over the past several decades.
Until 1997, there was only one phone in Antia. Any news that arrived by phone was whistled down to the family. That is just not the case anymore.
As people die or move away and the social constructs of the village change, the sfyria whistle language gradually lost its speakers – and with it, an important part of their culture.
As Panagiotis Tzanavaris, Antia’s best whistler, once put it, “It’s our way of life, and if it disappears, so does the cultural identity of this village.”
What is Being Done to Preserve the Greek Whistling Language?
According to Dimitra Hengen, a Greek linguist who spoke to BBC Travel,
By nature, a whistled language is already much more threatened than a spoken language because it’s much harder to reproduce. Unless something drastic here changes, I foresee sfyria vanishing in the very near future, and it’s a tragedy.
Sfyria’s biggest obstacle is that it is a language that can only be taught verbally, passed on from person to person or generation to generation. With only six people left who can teach it, this is getting harder and harder to do.
Many in Antia hope to petition the government to make an application to UNESCO. Being listed as an important part of Greece’s intangible cultural heritage - and one in need of safeguarding – can drive much-needed international awareness. And hopefully, inspire people to help bring it back from the brink.
Sfyria’s greatest champion is Panagiotis Tzanavaris. In 2010, Tzanavaris established the Cultural Organisation of Antia in an effort to resuscitate the dying language. In 2014, he welcomed a team of Harvard and Yale linguists to help him record the sfyria whistle language for future generations.
More recently he and others from his village were even featured in a short documentary that was screened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016. This was all part of Tzanavaris’ efforts to draw attention to sfyria language and hopefully catalyze its revitalization.
In another attempt to revive interest among locals, the municipality of Karistos (where Antia is located) organized the first Festival of the Whistling Language in 2016. Let’s hope the tradition continues.
Sfyria: Can the Whistling Language of Greece Be Saved?
It’s not easy to get to Antia. From Athens, you must first drive to the port of Rafina, then take an hour-long ferry ride across the Aegean Sea to Evia. Once you reach the island, another journey up the windmill-dotted hillsides of Mount Ochi awaits. After an hour driving along the switchback roads, you finally arrive at Antia.
This remoteness is both a blessing and a curse for sfyria. It’s thanks to its remoteness that this fascinating whistle language in Greece has lasted as long as it has. But its remoteness – and lack of cell service – make it less attractive for younger generations. In the last few decades, Antia’s population has declined from 250 inhabitants to just 37 as people move away to seek better fortunes. And these new destinations are not conducive to whistling conversations.
Panagiotis Tzanavaris recently passed away, but let’s hope his legacy lives on and that others will take up his cause to preserve sfyria.
“For years, the people in Antia have been talking about a disappearing language,” Tzanavaris told Eliot Stein of BBC Travel. “But with your help, maybe we can start talking about a language that survived.”
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.