Definitions

flagging down

Whistling

[hwis-ling, wis-]

Human whistling is the production of sound by means of a constant stream of air from the mouth. The air is moderated by the tongue, lips, teeth, or fingers to create turbulence, and the mouth acts as a resonant chamber to enhance the resulting sound, thus acting as a type of Helmholtz resonator. Whistling can also be produced by hands, or using an external instrument, such as a whistle or even a blade of grass or leaf. The ability to whistle is possibly enabled by a genetic trait, possibly the same one which allows for curling of the tongue.

Types of whistling

Non-instrumental whistling from the mouth can be accomplished in several ways:

  • Pucker (or "pursed lip") whistling, in which the air is expelled or inhaled through pursed lips, producing turbulence
  • Roof or palatal whistling, in which the turbulence is produced by air being pushed between the tongue and the roof (palate or alveolar ridge) of the mouth
  • Finger whistling or wolf-whistling, in which one or more fingers are inserted into the mouth to shape the opening, allowing a much more forceful stream of air to be blown through.
  • Bottom-lip whistling entails pinching the center of the bottom lip and sucking in, rather than blowing out, resulting in a very loud and piercing whistle.
  • Hand whistling, in which air is blown from the mouth into a resonant chamber formed by cupped hands
  • Throat whistling, in which air is blown through the throat with the mouth closed

A whistled tone is primarily a simple oscillation (or sine wave) produced in the resonant chamber, and thus timbral variations are slight. The pitch of a whistle can be altered by changing the volume and shape of the resonant chamber (most typically by using the tongue).

In duotone whistling, use of the lips and tongue are combined to produce two tones at once, which can also start and stop at different times, but must be close in pitch. Simple duets can be whistled solo in this way.

It is also possible to whistle and hum at the same time. With enough practice, it is possible for one to hum and whistle two separate melodies at the same time. One of the most prolific "hum-whistlers" is A.J. Johnson, of Leeds, who, in recent years, has appeared in a number of West End and Yorkshire-based plays demonstrating his craft with a live orchestral backdrop.

Some languages and code languages use whistles as a part of their communication; this is referred to as whistled speech.

"Loud whistling" is a non-musical type of whistling that used to indicate both satisfaction and displeasure, usually at, but not limited to, sporting events, political rallies, social gatherings, and movies. (Edward T. Hall, "Essential Do's and Taboos: The Complete Guide to International Business and Leisure Travel", 2007). It is also used as an attention-getter for such purposes as calling dogs, flagging down taxis and alerting bus passengers in India. This piercing style of whistling is very loud and the sound can carry very far. It can be made in a number of ways with and without use of the fingers.

One specific type of whistling called "wolf-whistling" can also be used to denote physical attractiveness in the one being whistled at. Though it was frequently heard in cartoons and films of the 50s and 60s, it is now considered very poor manners in the Western world and can even be considered a form of harassment in a professional setting. The usual setting is a man whistling at an attractive woman, but it can happen between virtually anyone. It may also be used jokingly as a compliment between closer individuals, in a romantic relationship, for example. It can also be directed to inanimate objects to signify appreciation, as with impressive buildings, or high-powered cars. The wolf-whistle usually consists of a pitch-bend up, a brief stop, followed by a quick pitch-bend up that smoothly comes back down in a continuous manner.

Musical/melodic whistling

Whistling can be musical: many performers on the music hall and Vaudeville circuits were professional whistlers, the most famous of which were Ronnie Ronalde and Fred Lowery and several notable songs feature whistling in some capacity. The term puccalo refers to jazz whistling.

Pucker whistling is the most common form of whistling used in most Western music. Typically, the tongue tip is lowered, often placed behind the lower teeth, and pitch altered by varying the position of the tongue body. In particular, the point at which the dorsum of the tongue approximates the palate varies from near the uvula (for low notes) to near the alveolar ridges (for high notes). Although varying the degree of pucker will change the pitch of a pucker whistle, expert pucker whistlers will generally only make small variations to the degree of pucker, due to its tendency to affect purity of tone.

By contrast, many expert musical palatal whistlers will substantially alter the position of the lips to ensure a good quality tone. Venetian gondoliers are famous for moving the lips while they whistle in a way that can look like singing.

Whistling in popular culture

Whistling and superstition

Whistling in theatre, particularly on-stage, is considered extremely unlucky. Before the invention of electronic means of communication, sailors were often used as stage technicians, working with the complicated rope systems associated with flying. Coded whistles would be used to call cues, so it is thought that whistling on-stage may cause, for example, a cue to come early, a "sailor's ghost" to drop a batten or flat on top of an actor, or general bad luck in the performance.

In Russian and other Slavic cultures, whistling indoors is superstitiously believed to bring poverty ("whistling money away"), whereas whistling outdoors is considered normal.

In Serbia, it is said that whistling indoors will attract mice, while in Korea and Japan, whistling is thought to bring snakes. Whistling on board a sailing ship is thought to encourage the wind strength to increase. This is regularly alluded to the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian.

In Hawaiian lore, whistling at night is considered bad luck because it mimics the sound of night marchers.

See also

References

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