The Greek village of Antia is as far from the tourist havens of Crete and Mykonos as you can get.
High in the mountains on the island of Evia, the village on the slopes Mount Ochi has long existed away from the modern world - no hotels, no coach tours, no Wifi.
The locals have been herding their sheep for thousands of years here, but while on the surface their lives are not unique, it is only once they start talking with each other that Antia sets itself apart - they whistle to communicate.
Antia is home to the last whistlers of Greece. Sfyria, as the whistling language is called in Greek — it comes from the Greek word sfyrizo, to whistle — is not technically a language; linguists refer to it as a speech registrar, like shouting or whispering. It’s the same as modern Greek — the grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure all remain intact — but the sounds come out in high-pitched musical notes. Each letter of the alphabet is individually whistled (alpha, beta, gamma), and strung together to create an ariose warble.
Each tone of whistling corresponds to a letter of the alphabet and by putting whistles of different tones in order, they form words. This way, they can talk and understand each other simply by whistling. Children learn the language at the age of 5 or 6.
To the untrained ear, it sounds like a completely different language, and because it’s likely you’ve never heard anyone whistle “come here, man, you owe me some money,” the whole auditory experience is that much more foreign. Even native Greek speakers are unable to understand sfyria, and for an English-speaker, sfyria simply sounds like melodic tweeting. But for the villagers of Antia, it’s been a useful form of communication for generations.
The interesting custom dates back to the times of ancient Greece. Some speculate that the residents of Antia got the language skills from the Persian soldiers who were guarding Greek prisoners in the Karystos area.
The language was discovered by mass media as late as March 1969, when a group of rescuers was searching for the remains of a missing pilot whose plane had crashed in the mountain area and they came across the unique sounds.
Although some Antians are working hard to preserve their language by teaching informal classes, petitioning the municipal government to open a school, and inviting researchers to come record the language — the charge is led by Panagiotis Tzanvaris, who created the Cultural Association of Antia — time is against them. Sfyria is considered an endangered language; the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) defines an endangered language as one that is “likely to become extinct in the future.” According to the LSA, 80 percent of the world’s languages may die out within the next hundred years.
Today, there are only 37 residents left in the village. The dead have been buried next to a small church down the road, and almost all of the younger generation has left to work in the larger towns of Evia, or further away in Athens. There are perhaps twenty village dwellers who can still whistle, but the sounds that used to pierce the quiet landscape have dwindled to just a few sharp exhalations.