5 Amazing Non-Verbal Languages People Actually Use
Non-verbal language was not created so star-crossed lovers could pass "Do you like me? Yes/No ; )" notes. Throughout the vast majority of time and locales, including today, matchmaking was achieved through equine-mediated kidnappings.
Nor was non-verbal language invented to document dirty limericks, epic tales of divine debauchery, or for any other such romantic reason. Those are just bonuses. It was designed for record-keeping. And ever since the first Homo sapien brained his neighbor with a club and stole his sweet potatoes, our species has sought ever-more intricate ways of communicating our feelings through unspoken means.
The People Of Kongthong Have Musical, Anti-Demon Names
Kongthong, near the regional capital of Shillong, is the land where everybody's name is a song. Sorry to go all Seuss on you. We're especially sorry if you read that on a boat, while wearing a wooly coat, brushing your pet stoat, or feeding the family milk goat. Seriously though, this Indian village is located in the world's rainiest region of Meghalaya, where farmers grow oat.
Music is among the few things more pleasing to the human psyche than a good rhyme or bloody meat, be it served up at Applebee’s or in a UFC ring. And the people of Kongthong learned this countless generations ago through the practice of "Jingrwai lawbei."
Jingrwai lawbei means"song from the first mother," referring to the ancient mater that founded this matrilineal village where women pass down land and husbands take their wives’ names. But, as per most of India, women don’t have much actual decision-making power.
Mothers here compose unique musical names for their babies. Song names come in short and long forms, as regular names do. For example, the millions of scholarly onomasticians among our readership will not be surprised as we inform the rest of you that "Nat," and "Nate," are foreshortenings of the more formal "Nathaniophistopheles."
Song names can be 30 seconds or so, but a truncated title is enough to identify individuals around town. People also have a conventional, lettered name for legal considerations like obtaining MLM permits or divorces. But unlike Western paternal tropes, when a child dings the VW or neglects to consume the last piece of flesh from a mystical man-eating snake, then that piece regenerates into many snakes, the parents admonish that child using their less formal, spoken name.
Kongthong's musical call signs were devised to save villagers' souls from folkloric threats. The forests and rivers hereabouts are home to malefic spirits and demons, which can only infest mortals upon hearing their spoken names. So song names kept demons at bay. Song-names also pierce the sound-muffling foliage, allowing wayward wanderers to call for help, lest they become fodder for a lecherous wood-ghast.
Like others of its type, the village recently modernized and embraced tourism. Kongthong became electrified in 2000, linked to a major road in 2013, and now has bamboo guest houses for backpackers escaping paternal issues or money lenders. Plus, locals profit from their organic goods, including honey, pepper, and the betel nuts that addict tens of millions with their tooth-staining, slightly psychoactive allure.
The Pirahã Language Has No Numbers
The Amazonian Pirahã do not have numbers. This is unthinkable in our modern world, where people use math to ensure Jack in the Box doesn’t shortchange them on an early-morning 20-taco order after a hazy all-night bender. Yet the 700ish Pirahã don't need numeracy to estimate, at a glance, whether they've arrowed enough jungle fowl for the whole family or if grandpa's walking with the ancestors tonight.
Only one non-native person really understands Pirahã, which is also the name of the language. Dan Everett is an anthro-linguist and former evangelist preacher who arrived among the Pirahã people in the '70s. And was potentially, and understandably, almost murdered for spreading the word of Jesus, who, if we recollect Intro to Renaissance Art, partied with lepers.
According to Everett, the Pirahã do not care about numbers, religion, other languages (which they call "crooked head"), or lots of things. They live in the "here and now" without recorded history, art, or food preservation because if a sloth falls into your lap, it's BBQ-sloth-o’clock right now. Their language is just as bare bones. It doesn't confuse one with a variety of letters. It only seems to utilize about 8 consonants and 3 vowels. Which is great news to all who feared they might be slow—those grade-school STAR-testing anomalies simply owed to the misfortune of being born into the wrong language.
Without numeracy, the Pirahã only have words for certain amounts: small, more, and a bunch. Accordingly, they had trouble replicating a line-up of items after it was hidden from view. But don't smirk; that's literally you last night underestimating your cookie dough guzzlage as soon as the tube rolled from your limp fingers.
Pirahã language is also visually intriguing. A sentence announcing a visitor might read, “Xaói hi gáísai xigíaihiabisaoaxái ti xabiíhai hiatíihi xigío hoíhi,” mimicking the sound of Cthulhu smelling burnt rubber before collapsing.
Yet even though Pirahã appears to have fewer than half the components of our Latin alphabet, it’s not so simple. Letters don't equal sounds, apparently, and employ so many tones and stresses that the language can flow into a humming or singing noise flow.
In the 2010s, Everett caused a huge linguistic ruckus by claiming that Pirahã doesn't adhere to the "universal grammar," which states that all languages have certain cornerstones. Or, to provide you with a more relevant equivalency, picture Everett telling the JRPG community that Garfield vore is hotter than Marmaduke vore.
When asked about the quintessence of language, Everett says it depends on various "cognitive and physical characteristics that are unique to humans but unique to language." Whew, this neatly solves one antediluvian argument that has divided humanity and inspired untold genocide for millennia: Marmaduke vore is equally as erotic as Garfield vore.
The Esoteric "Quipu" Llama-Fiber Quilt
Most non-verbal communiqué was invented for administration and account-keeping, to monitor agricultural efficiency or how many amphorae of spit-wine you traded the town fletcher for a secretly cursed golden bear idol. Among the most creative ways to record such information was through a "quipu" or “khipu,” used in the 15th and 16th centuries and more accurately described as one of these things:
A quipu, uhhhh, thingy consists of a horizontal string from which dangle numerous other strings with knots in 'em. A quipu could have as many as 1,500 strings, and every aspect conveyed some sort of information: the type and number of strings, knots, their position, color, how they were twisted, and other relations that researchers may never fully tease out. More simply, the knots represent numbers via the decimal system.
Quipus kept track of official Inca business, including farming and artisanal outputs, a town census, or even llama traffic on busy roads. One recorded how much stuff was stolen by the Spanish conquistador, and major historical buttmunch, Francisco Pizzaro. Quipus of different types also contained genealogical information, news, myths, stories, and which kind of deli sandwich are you quizzes, all delivered straight to provincial rulers.
Not everyone could read a quipu, but the "khipu kamayuq" could. They made and interpreted the quipu, a profession whose closest modern counterpart is Gears of War lore-master. There were also quipu-reading runners called "chasqui," who transported the quipus along the 25,000-mile Inca Road system. Each chasqui ran up to about 10 miles before handing it off, like a baton, allowing it to easily travel 150 miles a day and deliver the royals their daily dose of Ziggy.
Researchers would have many more quipus to study if not for the Spaniards, who at first encouraged the use of quipu. It helped track tributes and maybe even sins in confession. Spanish Jesus is like the IRS: you not only have to appease him but also prove it to him by logging how you've appeased him and when.
Then, in reverse Sour Patch Kids logic, the conquistadors destroyed the quipus. It's likely they feared this ancient Prima Games predecessor may have held clandestine knowledge, revealing their secret weak point.
That sucks. Imagine how much more of the past's knowledge would have been preserved had Iberian “explorers” spent less time "discovering" the world and more time giving themselves various types of warts.
The whistling language of Kuşköy
In most parts of the world, whistling at women will get your face plastered on the unprofitable side of a Twitter campaign then under the hexerei of hemp-wick-using Wiccans in the 25+ BMI range. Yet in quaint Kuşköy in Turkey, you're likelier to get mobbed for not whistling at a lady.
Kuşköy is a lovely, vibrantly verdant village in the Pontic Mountains. It has one main street and crops of tea and hazelnuts. It's the kind of quiet, interconnected community where nobody ever finds decapitated goats aligned to Ursus Major on the mountainside. Nor does one ever discover a trove of odd biological parts in the village milliner's workshop.
The few hundred people of Kuşköy, aka "bird village," still converse using the traditional method of whistling. A method innovated more than 400 years ago, long before advanced long-range communication capabilities such as tin-can-telephones and shaving messages into a stray dog's fur, then chasing it with a spade.
In a region that somewhat recently received the sacred gift of electronic pornography in 1986, this "kuş dili" or "bird language" works just fine for some. It's like regular Turkish, except transmogrified "into varied-pitch frequencies and melodic lines" of about 20 distinct sounds. Theoretically preserving all your favorite cusses.
By whistling, villagers can force information into each other across long distances, more than half a mile, to bridge the green hills and fertile valleys that separate settlements. And when your neighbor resides on an opposing precipice, these shrill, warbling whistles are the easiest way to invite one for tea. Or to agree that the head coach deserves to endure lower-body-based torture at a secret rock-breaking camp after making a questionable substitution in the 2-1 cup loss to the lower division Bosphorus BallFoot Team 1897.
The whistling language is fading due to cell phones and other modern contrivances. But it's also being preserved through tech in an app called "Islık Dili Sözlüğü," which, given our knowledge of Turkish apps, probably translates as, "download this unlicensed Avengers beat-em-up for massive girth of penis."
Kuşköy now hosts a folk festival with traditional foods, crafts, dancing, and a whistling contest before a panel of judges sitting across a valley. The festival draws thousands of tourists to the "world whistling capital" to raise funds for more whistling. Additionally, official state-paid teachers keep the practice healthy for who knows how long. At least until those brain chips stop killing chimps.
The Penan's Secret Forest-Language
As Reba McEntire famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Ol' Reebs was talking about star-devouring extraterrestrial power plants and such, but the same principle holds true across the spectrum of innovation. Including non-verbal language: if you can make a message perceptible only to its intended audience, then you've accomplished a bit o' magic, my friend.
And the Penan of Malaysian Borneo have invented clever communicatory magicks using their local resources:
The Penan’s secret language doesn't involve pens, paper, Wingdings, or even ancient Egyptian Wingdings. Instead, it uses the environment itself: sticks, leaves, vines, and other forest stationery. For example, the image above says, “I’m a friend, follow me this way. Or wait for me to return.”
It's called Oroo' and was invented to warn of nearby headhunters while remaining invisible to said hunters of heads. The Penan themselves never dabbled in headhunting, a practice admonished by early-20th-century Australian missionaries who preferred killing natives through venereal causes.
Oroo' messages can be simple "danger" notifiers that warn of falling trees, snakes, or enemies.
Oroo' messages can also serve as road signs, point out places of interest, request help, or give surprisingly complex and detailed directions to locations and times.
Say you're journeying, hungry, and want your friends to find you soon. You'd lay down a "follow me" stick, a pointy "hurry up" stick, and a long, scraped stick showing direction and distance. A dangling strip of bark with three knots means "meet me in three days." A folded leaf signifies, "I'm foodless, bring some howler monkey drumsticks," while a smaller twig adds, "there’s no emergency, though. Still, hurry your ass up with that howler monkey."
Not impressed? Imagine trying to schedule a meeting at Dave & Buster's Tuesday afternoon utilizing only the components of your local environment. How quickly could you rig a coherent message using only Carl's Jr. wrappers, dog turd, and a drippy condom?
The Penan tried using their jungle arcana to fend off the loggers destroying their homes by making a barrier out of medicinal plants and planting a conspicuous rock on a stick that would petrify all trespassers:
Unfortunately, the trespassers were not turned to inanimate mineral matter. So the peaceful Penan are losing their home. To the same world-razing logging companies that try to guilt you for using too many squares of toilet paper after a post-buffet growler.
Top image: AkulininaOlga/Shutterstock