‘Special and Beautiful’ Whistled Language Echoes Around This Island

‘Special and Beautiful’ Whistled Language Echoes Around This Island

La Gomera, Spain – Sitting atop a cliff in the Canary Islands, Antonio Merquez Navarro issued an invitation – “Come here, we are killing the pig” – without uttering a word: He whistled it.

In the distance, three oncoming hikers stopped dead in their tracks at the piercing sound and its echo separated the ravine walls bouncing.

71-year-old Mr Merquez said that at a young age, when local shepherds walked on the steep and bumpy trails of their island instead of tourists, their news was promptly answered with a whistle, loud and clear.

But his message was lost on these hikers, and he soon resumed his trek on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic that is part of Spain.

Mr. Merquez is a parent of the whistle language of La Gomera, whom he calls “the poet of my island”. He said, “Like poetry, whistling doesn’t need to be special and beautiful to be useful.”

Rang the whistle Indigenous people La Gomera is mentioned in 15th century accounts. Of explorers Who paved the way for the Spanish conquest of the island. Over the centuries, the practice was adapted to communicate in Castilian Spanish.

The language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, replaces whistle-blowing sounds that differ from pitch and length for written letters. Unfortunately, there are fewer whistles than there are letters in the Spanish alphabet, so a sound can have multiple meanings, leading to misunderstandings.

The sounds made for some Spanish words are the same – such as “sí” (yes) or “ti” (you) – as are some for long words that sound the same in Spanish, such as “galina” or “ballena” (Hen or whale).

“As part of a sentence, this animal reference is obvious, but not if it whistles on its own,” said Estefania Mendoza, language teacher.

In 2009, the language of the island was added by UNESCO on its list Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; The United Nations agency described it as “the world’s only whistle language that has been fully developed and practiced by a large community” in reference to the 22,000 inhabitants of La Gomera.

But with the whistle not being necessary for communication, the existence of the silbo mostly depends on the 1999 law, which made it an essential part of La Gomera’s school curriculum.

On a recent morning at a school in the port city of Santiago, a 6-year-old children’s class had little difficulty recognizing whistle sounds to suit different colors or weekdays.

When the words were encapsulated into complete sentences, things became more clichéd, such as “What’s the name of a baby with blue shoes?” A couple of children argued that they had heard the sound of whistling for “yellow” instead.

If a whistle is not always easy to interpret, it can be even harder to sound right. Most whistlers place a bent finger in the mouth, but some use one instead of the tip of one or two fingers, while some use one finger with each hand.

“The only rule is to do whatever makes it easy to find a finger, and sometimes unfortunately does nothing,” said Francisco Corrie, coordinator of La Gomera’s school whistle program. “There are even some older people who have fully understood Silbo since childhood, but never heard a clear voice coming out of their mouths.”

Two whistlers may struggle to understand each other, especially during their first encounters – and need to ask each other to repeat sentences – such as strangers who speak the same language with different accents. Huh. But “after whistling together for a while, their communication becomes as easy as speaking Spanish,” Mr. Koreya said.

As in many languages, whether whistled or not, there is a generation gap on La Gomera.

Siro Mesa Niebla, a 46-year-old farmer, said he struggled to whistle with the younger generation trained in school, as he said, “I am a hill man, who learns to use our family’s words at home, but my I don’t have the vocabulary of these kids who blow the whistle of the salon, which is a little too fancy for me. “

Some older residents have also stopped whistling due to dental problems. He said that Miraz keeps whistling with his teeth, but it is not as easy and loud when I can press my finger on my real teeth.

With its different geography, it is easy to see why the whistle came into use on the Canary; On most islands, the deep peaks go from high peaks and plateaus to the sea, and to cover the distance for a short time requires a great deal of time and effort. Whistling developed it as a good alternative way to deliver a message, the sound of which takes farther than a shout – some up to two miles into the valley and with favorable wind conditions.

Older residents of La Gomera recall how Silbo was used as a warning language, especially when a police patrol was spotted searching for the Suraband. In a recent fictional film, “Whistler, “Silbo is used by gangsters as their secret code language.

Some other islands in the archipelago have their own whistle language, but their use has faded, although another island, El Hayro, has recently begun teaching its version. “Silbo was not invented on Debo Gomera, but it is an island where it was best preserved,” said David Diaz Reyes, an ethnologist.

Nowadays, La Gomera relies heavily on tourism, creating an opportunity for some young whistlers like 16-year-old Luia Darius Herrera who has a weekly whistle show at an island hotel. While she typically whistles Castilian Spanish, Ms. Darias can also adapt silbo to other languages ​​spoken by her audience, on an island that is particularly popular with Germans.

Since last spring, however, coronoviruses have not only canceled such shows, but also forced schools to limit their whistle instruction. At the time of mandatory face masks, a teacher cannot help a student repeat a finger inside his or her mouth to better whistle.

Younger children also “make a heavy effort to blow a lot of air, which means some are spitting instead of whistling”, said Mr. Correa, school coordinator. So as a precaution against spreading the virus, children now play their weekly whistle to listen to recordings of silbo instead of whistling themselves.

An additional difficulty for students is that they do not always have the opportunity to practice silbo out of school. In a class of 6-year-olds, only five of the 17 raised their hands when asked if they had a chance to whistle in the house.

“My brother can really whistle loudly, but he won’t show me, because he’s either on his PlayStation or is out with friends,” complained Laura Mesa Mendoza, one of the young men.

Still, some teenagers enjoy whistling each other when they meet in the city and get to chat with many adults nearby without understanding. Some had parents who went to school before learning silbo, or who settled on the island as an adult.

Although she is attached to her cellphone, 15-year-old Erin Gerhds helped improve her whistling sound and preserve her island traditions.

“It’s a way of honoring people who have 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.”



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