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Terra Incognita

Spain: Whistling Words Through The Mountains Of La Gomera

Hundreds of years ago, the people on the small Canary island of La Gomera developed the whistled language El Silbo. Unique in the European Union, it is cultivated and maintained today for its significant cultural value.

Isidro Ortiz grew up with El Silbo and knows the right technique

Mountainous terrain, deep canyons and no cell phone at your fingertips? How can you communicate over long distances, where even loud shouting disappears into the distance? Well, several hundred years ago, the population on the small Canary island of La Gomera made a virtue of necessity. They developed a whistled language called El Silbo, from the verb silbar or "to whistle."

Today, El Silbo is only used rarely in day-to-day communication. Yet it was introduced as a mandatory subject in the island's grade schools in 1999. This has been a significant step in maintaining the language, says José Zenón Ruano from the Canary Islands education ministry.

"If the government of the Canary Islands hadn't taken the initiative to introduce this whistled language as a required subject at school, only very old people would still be able to speak it," Ruano says. "Today, it's these old people and the young who whistle on La Gomera and communicate using Silbo."

Pupils get together every year for the Silbo festival

It's assumed that early African settlers originally brought the whistling to this rugged mountainous island. In the 15th century then, the Spanish conquerors forced their language onto the islanders. Silbo is therefore a kind of whistled Spanish.

The sounds can be heard over great distances, so for example solitary shepherds and farmers used to be able to converse with each other without having to travel far. Rising and falling tones, trills and pauses serve as the basis of this communication.

Understanding through the law of exclusion

The Gomerans are proud of their cultural heritage and can count on political support. The Canaries' education ministry spends some 100,000 euros ($138,000) per year on various Silbo projects, such as a training course for teachers.

Trainee Mai Felipe Martin says only a limited number of vowels and consonants can be whistled. Silbo is therefore more difficult to understand than it is to speak. But listeners can quickly decide what is meant by the law of exclusion, she says.

The government is helping teachers learn Silbo

"When I was a child, it was easy for me to understand Silbo, but I also wanted to speak it," Martin says. "It was my own personal challenge to learn the whistling." She still has a few problems putting it into practice, though.

Some of the children on the island are already true professionals, though, like ten-year-old Lina. She knows quite a bit about the earlier practical uses of the language, which is unique in the European Union.

"There didn't used to be telephones and if you wanted to tell your grandfather to bring you something to eat, you could do it in Silbo," Lina says.

Today, whistling is also less expensive than a cell phone. Nine-year-old Andrea sometimes even talks to her friends after school in Silbo.

"That way, we have even more fun with each other," Andrea says.

Silbo as a form of resistance

Until Martin and her fellow trainees are ready to work as Silbo teachers, some of the older men are currently responsible for instruction. Isidro Ortiz grew up with the language. He recalls how it was in the past.

La Gomera is one of the smallest of the Canary Islands

"When some inhabitants in La Gomera were being chased by the police Guardia Civil, people would quickly call in Silbo: Careful! Here's comes the Guardia Civil and is looking for you! Go hide!" Ortiz says.

During the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1939, talented whistlers from both sides were employed for transmitting information. The whistled language was often used as a form of resistance against the authorities. This was also the case during the Franco dictatorship, which lasted until 1975.

Later, the spread of the telephone on La Gomera threatened the art of whistling. But this danger appears to be averted now, says the head of the island's cultural department Moisés Plasencia.

"I'm certain that UNESCO's general assembly will declare Silbo Gomero as an official cultural heritage in 2008," Plasencia says.

The application for oral heritage status at UNESCO is still running.

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