On La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands in Spain, a whistling language is still in use thanks to mandatory classes for schoolchildren.
The language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, substitutes whistled sounds that vary by pitch and length for written letters. In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added Silbo Gomero to its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The United Nations agency described it as “the only whistled language in the world that is fully developed and practiced by a large community.”
With its distinct geography, it’s easy to see why whistling came into use on the Canary Islands. On most of the islands, deep ravines run from high peaks and plateaus down to the ocean, and plenty of time and effort are required to travel even a short distance overland. Whistling developed as a good alternative way to deliver a message, with its sound carrying farther than shouting—as much as two miles across some canyons with favorable wind conditions.
Some other islands have their own whistling languages, but their use has faded. “Silbo was not invented on La Gomera, but it’s the island where it was best preserved,” said David Díaz Reyes, an ethnomusicologist.
Older residents on La Gomera recall how Silbo was used as a warning language, particularly when a police patrol was spotted searching for contraband. In a recent fictional movie, The Whistlers, Silbo is used by gangsters as their secret code language.
But with whistling no longer essential for communication, Silbo’s survival mostly relies on a 1999 law that made teaching it an obligatory part of La Gomera’s school curriculum.
Since last spring, however, the coronavirus has forced schools to limit their whistling instruction. As a precaution against spreading the virus, students now spend their weekly whistling lesson listening to recordings of Silbo, rather than whistling themselves. An added difficulty for students is that they don’t always have much opportunity to practice Silbo outside of school.
Still, some teenagers enjoy whistling greetings to each other and welcome the chance to chat without many of the adults around them understanding. Some had parents who went to school before learning Silbo became mandatory, or who settled on the island as adults.
Erin Gerhards, 15, said she is eager to improve her whistling and help safeguard the traditions of her island. “It’s a way to honor the people that lived here in the past,” she said. “And to remember where everything came from, that we didn’t start with technology, but from simple beginnings.”
Author: Minder, Raphael
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