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The sound of Silbo Gomera, the whistling language of this unique and beautiful island

Taking a welcome break during a long walk in a magical wooded valley in the heart of the Garajonay Forest in the small Canary Island of La Gomera, I heard a sound that I had often longed to hear.

It was the sound of Silbo Gomera, the whistling language of this unique and beautiful island. This whistling language, the Gomeran whistle, is an ancient local language, which once seemed to be dying out, but is now enjoying something of a revival.

My attention was drawn to a tiny figure further down the valley. The figure was surrounded by what appeared to be goats. As the figure whistled, more goats joined the assembled group. Clearly, the whistling was designed to attract the goats before they moved on.

Suddenly, I heard a second whistling sound. This whistle was of a higher pitch, and sounded urgent; it was immediately answered by the first whistle. Sometimes it sounded bird like, with the response more urgent and determined. I sat and listened to what I realised was a fine example of genuine communication between locals, using the whistle language.

Later, I mentioned what I had heard to the barman in the wooden shack that served as a small bar for trekkers. The barman nodded, “Ah yes, that’s Santiago with his goats. He lived in Tenerife for a few months to study, but hated the hectic life so much that he returned home to be with his goats. He was training to be a doctor. That’s his mother calling him home for lunch, I expect.”

Until that moment, I had always thought that the whistle language was something that the locals had reintroduced to keep the tourists on the cruise ships and in restaurants entertained. However, as I spoke to more people on the island, it became clear that the language is very much alive and well, and still used as an effective form of communication.

Experts tell me that the whistle language modifies the Spanish language by replacing it with two whistled vowels and four consonants. The whistle is perfectly suited to the landscape of deep valleys and steep ravines, with the sound travelling up to two miles away. In an area where mobile phone signals are either non-existent, or at best unreliable, I can see its advantages.

Little is known about the origins of the language, other than when the first European settlers arrived in La Gomera during the 15th Century, the locals who were of North African origin, communicated by whistling. When the Spanish invaded, the locals adapted the whistling language to Spanish. It is therefore likely that the whistle originated from African settlers, where there is evidence of other whistled languages used.

Later, a taxi driver recalled the widespread use of the whistle language during troubled times in the 1940s, such as when the mountain caught fire, which it often did. The Guardia Civil would arrive and collect the locals to help put out the fire. Although the council and the mayors were paid to put out the fires, they did not pass on the money to the locals who helped, keeping the money for themselves.

In order to avoid the police, the locals would whistle to each other that the police were coming and that they should hide. Members of the Guardia Civil didn’t understand whistling and so it was an ideal way of avoiding conscription.

Later, I heard from an old man who told me that learning to whistle wasn’t a matter of pleasure or a hobby, but was a social and practical obligation. If you didn’t know the language, you would have to walk to give a message, which was not practical in an area of mountains and ravines, and with few roads and no telephones.

In the 1950s, the use of the language began to decline due to economic problems that forced most of the whistlers to emigrate, often to South America or to the larger neighbouring islands.

Thanks to European Union funding, the road network was developed, and phones became popular, which made the whistling language almost obsolete.

In the 1990s, there was a major effort to revive the language, which was partly due to making it a compulsory subject in Gomeran primary schools. A few years ago, it used to be true that the language was mostly heard in schools, as well as in restaurants that provide whistling demonstrations for tourists. However, judging from my experiences in the wooded valley, as well as a few days later on a building site where I could hear the same piercing whistle being used by construction workers, I realised that this strange and mystical language has entered a period of serious revival.

For photos and more information about this special island, take a look at the ‘La Gomera’ pages of The Canary Islander website.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: www.barriemahoney.com and www.thecanaryislander.com or read his book, ‘Letters from the Atlantic’ (ISBN: 9780992767136). Available as paperback, as well as on Kindle, iBooks and Google Play Books.

iPhone/iPad and Android Apps: ExpatInfo, CanaryIsle and CanaryGay now available.

© Barrie Mahoney

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