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This ancient whistling language is in grave danger of dying out

September 5, 2017 at 6:05 PM EDT
In the Greek island village of Antio, home to the world's most endangered language, aging residents communicate across hillsides through whistles, a specific system of communication believed to date back to Ancient Greece. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on how they hope to save their language from extinction and what it has in common with Twitter.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally: Practitioners of the world’s most endangered language are appealing for financial assistance to save it from extinction.

It’s mainly used by an aging population in a mountain village on the Greek island of Evia. And the language is dying with them.

As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant discovered, this ancient language has something in common with that emblem of modern digital communication, Twitter.

MALCOLM BRABANT: You almost have to go to the edge of Europe to find the whistling village of Antia. Take a ferry from the Greek mainland to the island of Evia. Pass giant wind farms and a hidden waterfall.

Then you encounter the unique voice of Kyriaki Giannakari, trilling as clear as a bird, chatting to her distant neighbors.

KYRIAKI GIANNAKARI, Whistling Villager (through interpreter): It’s essential we preserve this language. We have to keep it. This is the way we have grown up.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And this is how they invite their friends to lunch, using a technique that distinctly transmits the message for miles between hill tops.

Experts believe the language dates back to ancient Greek times. One theory is that it was created by Persians 2,500 years ago after they were defeated in the great naval Battle of Salamis. Survivors washed up on the shores of Evia whistled to each other to avoid detection from vengeful ancient Greeks.

Panagiotis Tzanavaris is leading the battle to save what UNESCO considers to be the world’s most endangered language.

PANAGIOTIS TZANAVARIS, Cultural Association of Antio (through interpreter): Whistling was used widely, used until the day the telephone arrived. That was in 1965, around the same time most young people left the village to study or find work.

So, it meant there was no one around to pass the language onto the next generation.

MALCOLM BRABANT: It’s time for the villagers to wet their whistles. And glasses of a fiery local liquor called tsipouro arrive.

YANNIS TSIPAS, Whistling Farmer (through interpreter): If you drink too much tsipouro, you get a hell of a headache. We had a festival at the church yesterday. I had far too much tsipouro, and I have got a major hangover. I just had a small one right now, and I’m slowing getting back on an even keel.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The villagers are at pains to stress that this is a language, not a code. If you can speak it, you can whistle it.

Panagiotis Tzanavariz runs through the Greek alphabet

PANAGIOTIS TZANAVARIS (through interpreter): Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Today, there are only 18 people left who are proficient in this language.

Panagiotis Bournousouzis is the youngest exponent. His friend, Yannis Apostolou, acknowledges the difficulty in sustaining it.

YANNIS APOSTOLOU, Unemployed Taxi Driver (through interpreter): For someone who doesn’t use the language on an everyday basis, he will find that after a while his mouth and jaw are becoming numb. For someone who uses the language regularly, it becomes easier the more you use it. It’s like exercise.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Given that most conversation takes place in short bursts, using just a handful of characters, what we’re listening to here is effectively the earliest known form of Twitter.

So, what do they think of the world’s most famous Twitter user?

Panagiotis Bornousouzis:

PANAGIOTIS BORNOUSOUZIS, Antio Resident (through interpreter): I like President Trump. I think he’s a stable influence, and I think he will take America forward.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Farmer Yannis Tsipas:

YANNIS TSIPAS (through interpreter): I think Trump is very good for his own country. I just wish he would help Greece a bit. I don’t have a very high opinion of Greece’s prime minister, because, instead of getting us out of this financial mess, he’s getting us deeper into it. Trump could assist us economically if he would pay a portion of Greece’s debt.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Yannis Apostolou:

YANNIS APOSTOLOU (through interpreter): What I would really like to see President Trump do is to put an end to all the wars that are going on at the moment across the world, and then to try to get people back into a normal type of rhythm and develop the rest of the world.

Trump is outside the political system. Because he’s an outsider and a technocrat, I think he will find a way to resolve the situation with North Korea.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Panagiotis Tzanavaris:

PANAGIOTIS TZANAVARIS (through interpreter): It’s a bit early to tell, but it’s my opinion that Trump will cause fewer wars than Obama, who came to Greece and started praising democracy.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The villagers acknowledge that the language is fading as fast as an Evia sunset, and they are trying to find a benefactor to fund lessons for young Greeks interested in perpetuating this unique sound of the mountains.

Panagiotis Tzanavaris is painfully aware that financially strapped Greece has other priorities.

PANAGIOTIS TZANAVARIS (through interpreter): We have got a society, a state which shows no interest whatsoever in preserving this piece of our so important cultural heritage.

(WHISTLING)

MALCOLM BRABANT: What he said was, “For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Evia.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Malcolm will do anything to go to Greece.

And we’re thinking of doing the NewsHour in whistling from now on.

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