High above the clouds on La Gomera in the Spanish Canary Islands, a solitary tune whistles across the numerous valleys that snake around the mountainous interior of the island. If you listen close enough to the nuances in the whistles, you can make out that Juan is in need of some honey and is asking whether Rodrigo who lives in the next valley over has some to spare.
The rugged island of La Gomera gives rise to interesting methods of communication (Source)
In this wild and isolated landscape, mere speech did not suffice to communicate with other inhabitants before the arrival of modern telecommunications technology. As such, the Gomerans resorted to whistling in order to convey information effectively and quickly. This whistled language, called Silbo Gomero (or ‘Gomeran whispers’ in Spanish), served the islanders well in the past, but is currently severely endangered after the coming of mobile phones displaced its usefulness to the people. Efforts are underway to preserve this UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but it remains to be seen if Silbo Gomero can withstand the test of time or echo off into the graveyard of dead languages like so many before it.
It is thought that the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands, a mysterious people of Berber extraction called the Guanches, were the first to make use of whistles to speak their language, though no records of this have been found. After Spain conquered the islands and Spanish speakers began arriving on La Gomera in large numbers around the 16th century, they in turn used the existing structure of the whistled language for Spanish. As such, Silbo Gomero is in essence a transposing of an existing language (in this case Spanish) into whistles: a peculiar form of communication that is found in only a few other places, such as the highlands of Anatolia in Turkey and a mountain village in Morocco—the common factor is of course the presence of rugged topography which prevents efficient communication through the usual spoken way. By whistling—which carries across a larger distance than mere speech (estimated to be up to 5 kilometres)—the speakers of whistled languages were able to overcome these natural barriers, without having to resort to more time-consuming written methods of communication such as sending letters or using pigeons.
A Gomeran man using his hands and mouth to produce the distinctive whistles of Silbo Gomero (Source)
Users of Silbo Gomero articulate the language by using their tongues, lips, and hands, and this can be physically challenging for those who are unable to follow the precise movements needed to produce the distinct whistles. Because of this, the language may be hard to acquire for those who were not brought up with it from an early age and taught with specific 200-year-old techniques to master the modulations in the whistles. Linguists had previously believed that the language only had 2 vowels and 4 consonants. However, it is now believed that there are actually 4 vowels, distinguished by the pitch and intensity of the whistles, approximating ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’ and ‘o’. Similarly, the number of consonants is thought to be around 10, depending on whether the whistle is continuous or has stops, is rising or falling, and is high or low pitched. Due to the tendency for the whistled phonemes to merge with each other when their modulations are similar, context is quite important in determining the meaning of the whistles. It must be noted however, that sustained conversation is rarely carried out in Silbo Gomero, with users preferring instead to convey more straightforward and general information such as warnings or announcements.
Silbo Gomero was widely taught and used on La Gomera up until the 1950s; however the modernisation of the island and its environs has drastically changed its fortune. Two major factors that led to the decline of Silbo Gomero were the improvement of communication technology, which obviated the need to traverse the distances and physical landscape, and the increasing association of the language with farmers and rural people (peasants if you will) which meant that speaking Silbo Gomero was seen to be a mark of backwardness and unsophistication. As a result, children were discouraged from learning and whistling Silbo Gomero from the 1950s onwards, and knowledge of the language was almost lost. However, interest in the language revived in the 1980s, and this kickstarted a slew of measures aimed at the preservation of the cultural and social heritage inherent to Silbo Gomero. Students were taught the language in classrooms, and programmes aimed at improving proficiency among adults were introduced so as to refresh their whistling skills. Efforts were also made to document the language and to digitise audio recordings so that the corpus of materials relating to Silbo Gomero could be easily accessible. The language is currently known to many Gomerans and it can be seen that preservation efforts have been largely successful.
With the above being said however, it must be borne in mind that the vast majority of people who use Silbo Gomero now, do so not in order to communicate, but to demonstrate the language to tourists who come over to La Gomera, or in religious processions where the whistles have been incorporated in hymns and songs. Can this be said to truly be a language in revival? It would seem that the preservation of the language has only managed to mummify it, and its past life can never be reclaimed again due to the replacement of the function of the language with technological gadgets such as mobile phones. Be that as it may, it must surely be a good thing that Silbo Gomero has not died out entirely, and that our ears are still able to hear the beautiful tunes being carried by the wind.