Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Strange Whistle Language of the Clangers

"In the beginning was the void and the void was dark and without form, being 'eight by five' sheets of battened hardboard painted midnight blue. And on the first day took we a bucket of white emulsion and big floppy brushes and threw white stars thereon, even unto the extremities thereof. And we looked upon it and saw that it was terrible. And on the second day we painted it out and started again..." (Oliver Postgate)

"Oliver Postage: A Small Life in Films" explored the remarkable animations produced by Oliver Postage. With little more than a camera capable of filming frame by frame, and a good deal of ingenuity in construction with mechano, cotton wool, etc, and clever storytelling, Oliver created worlds that delighted generations of children - Pingwings, Pogles' Wood, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Clangers and Bagpuss.

I remember probably one of his most famous creations, the Clangers, from my own childhood. It was extraordinarily simple in design, yet the use of clever scripts, his warm and friendly narration, and the use of music to substitute for dialogue was extremely innovative.

The Clangers were so popular that they make a brief appearance in the 1972 Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils, where the Doctor's arch-enemy, the Master, watches them on television and whistles along, saying that they are a most interesting life form!

As the documentary on Oliver Postgate showed, all of the Clangers was scripted, including the words which were replaced by sounds. The use of swanee whistles was quite consistent with the scripted "dialogue" of the Clangers, and should probably end up as a thesis by a linguist one day; certain it is mentioned in passing in the paper "Pingu's Lingo, or How to Get By in Penguinese" by Tony Thorne, Director of the Language Centre at King's College, University of London.

Thorne is looking at Pingu's language, which like the Clangers, possesses a certain consistency. He actually states that "Other kids' favourites like Sooty's companion Sweep, Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, the Clangers and the Teletubbies, all have their own very different ways of 'speaking', but charming as they are none of these really amounts to a language."

I would dispute this; having seen the way in which the dialogue of the Clangers was taken from a script, which occasionally included swear words - not "full of swearing" as Thorne states - the "translation" seems to be exact; a phrase would be represented consistently by the same sequence of notes on the swanee whistle. It is not as recognisable as a distorted speech as Pingu, but that is because the means by which it is generated is different. I think this is where Thorne makes his mistake; he is looking for analogues that sound "speech like" rather than sounds that don't, but which may have the linguistic pattern of speech.

Thorne notes that "Pingu's speech is so rich because it consists not only of a wide range of different sounds, but of the body language that goes with them.", and the same, I think is true with the Clangers.

On another linguists site, one observer notices that the grammar of the whistles can be understood, if you put your mind to it; it is the ear that is not attuned to a non-human range of sounds that finds it hard:

The Clangers indeed speak English in whistle tones. Once you get your ear in, you can make out what they say surprisingly often. The Soup Dragon and Iron Chicken also speak English, but are harder to understand.

In fact, with a discussion of Simlish (the language used by the strategic life-simulation computer game), one writer notes

The clangers discovered a universal language years ago :) It was a children's TV show in which the script wasn't read by actors - they played it on whistles. Worried mothers wrote in saying that their kids claimed to understand the words. It stunned everyone when they found that the kids were largely spot on.

Curiously enough, real whistled speech does occur in part of the world. The book "Whistled Languages."(1976) notes that:

"All whistled languages share one basic characteristic: they function by varying the frequency of a simple wave-form as a function of time, generally with minimal dynamic variations, which is readily understandable since in most cases their only purpose is long-distance communication."

The French linguist, J Meyer, who spent 14 months in fieldwork on these languages notes that:

"Whistled speech relies on phonetic elements of the original spoken voice in order to communicate in the distance or in the ambient noise. It enables high intelligibility of sentences in difficult conditions of listening."

He notes that:

"The transformation at play in whistled speech is a practice that requires complementary learning but it is based on natural perceptive capacities. For example the results of a perception test show that French persons knowing nothing of whistled Spanish vowels can intuitively identify them."

This, is I think, part of the appeal of the Clangers to young children, that they could learn and intuitively understand the language. It is the more remarkable that a children's programme, made using some of the most primitive technology available, provided something for children to actively engage with, rather than passively sit back and watch.

And as Tony Thorne comments:

Language specialists today think that hearing strange languages stimulates children, who soon come to understand how voices are used for comic effect and learn to appreciate the emotional resonance of sounds.



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