Documentary on alum Mark Sicoli's work on the whistled language of Oaxaca


By Andries W. Coetzee
Apr 07, 2013 Bookmark and Share

Mark Sicoli

Mark Sicoli (PhD, 2007)

Mark Sicoli is an alum of our Department (PhD 2007, Linguistics and Anthropology), and currently an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University. Mark has had a long-standing research interest in the linguistic situation in Oaxaca, Mexico. His 2007 dissertation, co-chaired by Sally Thomason and Bruce Mannheim, focused on the tonal languages of the Zapotec region of Oaxaca. In the six years since graduating from UM, Mark has remained very active in research on this region, and he is fast becoming to go-to person for all things related to the indigenous languages of southern Mexico.

Recently, Mark has had the singular honor of having a documentary made about his research on the whistled language of the Chinantecan people of northern Oaxaca. Several languages have a unique whistled register that speakers use to communicate over long distances or in situations (such as hunting) where ordinary speech can be problematic. Although the best-known example of a whistled language is probably the Spanish based Silbo used in the Canary Islands, this mode of communication is actually much more widely used in both Africa and South America. It is, however, a communication form that is poorly understood and not well documented. Mark has been working together with Emmy Award winning producer David Yetman to create a video archive of the whistled communication system used by Chinantec speakers. As part of their NSF funded project, Yetman produced a episode about the Chinantec whistled language for his public television series In the Americas. The episode called "Whistles in the Mist: Whistled Speech in Oaxaca" is scheduled to air during the spring season of 2013. However, the complete episode can also be viewed on Mark's website here. The episode is only 23 minutes long, and is ideal for use in linguistics classes.

This is a prime example of the type of work that linguists can do that not only furthers our scientific understanding of the human capacity for language, but that is also of value to the communities being studied, and that communicates to society more broadly what linguists do. We are proud to have alums who do such wonderful work!