Whistling: Joy extends to ‘guys and gals’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 11, 2001

The cardinals called to one another across the neighborhood, their clear distinctive notes piercing the warm spring air of an April morning. It’s nesting time in Mississippi. The cacophony thrills an early riser and continues into the twilight in concerts for porch dwellers and evening strollers.

Many of us learned our first whistles while pondering birdsongs.

At the knees of a master teacher we sat on back steps or front galleries while a patient whistler moved his cheeks and tongue to make the mysterious trilling sound that we desperately wanted to imitate.

For birds, the lovely whistling sounds come naturally from their tiny feathered throats. For us, the act or art of whistling is a delight hard to explain.

How, we wonder, did the first person learn to whistle? That one would not have had a teacher but simply a curiosity about sound.

And why, we must ask, were women for centuries warned not to whistle?

An old English proverb, in fact, says, &uot;A whistling woman and a crowing hen is neither fit for God nor men.&uot;

Perhaps whistling started as a hum. That’s easy to imagine. If not an English-style air, at least a chant-like mmm could have inspired further use of the yet unexplored human musicality.

And then what were the words first spoken and how, when and why did they originate? Did bird-like sounds come first? Language, most experts think, may be easier to figure than whistling.

One anthropologist suggests that children are responsible for language. He says that at some point early in man’s history children were put together in pens, confined while the adults were hunting and gathering food.

One day the adults realized new sounds were coming from the pens. Those sounds were animated and repetitious, as the children had learned that in confinement they had to communicate to differentiate objects and actions.

The story is plausible and charming.

Might whistling also have been started by young rather than mature naturalists? Maybe the simple call of the bobwhite or the plaintive tones of the white-throated sparrow inspired the first human efforts to whistle.

Whatever the origin, whistling has become important in our lives through the years. For most of us, that practice of blowing air in tuneful ways is a subconscious act.

Some folks whistle when they’re nervous, taking that advice about whistling in the dark to keep their courage strong.

Others whistle when they’re concentrating; still others when they’re happy.

The advice of songs that tell us to whistle while we work or to whistle a happy tune when our spirits are down is probably good advice.

Come to think of it, now after all these generations of human whistlers, the act may be just about as natural to people as to creatures who do it among the newly green boughs of Mississippi trees.

A joyful springtime reminder of a shared nature fills the air. Our own attempts at whistling, prompted more by emotions than by seasons of the year, are fulfilling in their own ways, too. And forget the old adage. Joy of whistling extends to gals as well as guys.

Joan Gandy, special projects director, can be reached at 445-3549 or via e-mail at joan.gandy@natchezdemocrat.com