Márquez, 71, said that in his youth, when local shepherds rather than tourists walked the steep and rugged footpaths of his island, his news would have been greeted right away by a responding whistle, loud and clear.
But his message was lost on these hikers, and they soon resumed their trek on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic that is part of Spain. Márquez is a proud guardian of La Gomera’s whistling language, which he called “the poetry of my island.” And, he added, “like poetry, whistling does not need to be useful in order to be special and beautiful.”
The whistling of the Indigenous people of La Gomera is mentioned in the 15th-century accounts of the explorers who paved the way for the Spanish conquest of the island. Over the centuries, the practice was adapted to communicating in Castilian Spanish. The language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, substitutes whistled sounds that vary by 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, causing misunderstandings. The sounds made for a few Spanish words are the same — like “sí” (yes) or “ti” (you) — as are those for some longer words that sound similar in spoken Spanish, like “gallina” or “ballena” (hen or whale).
“As part of a sentence, this animal reference is clear, but not if whistled on its own,” said Estefanía Mendoza, a teacher of the language. In 2009, the island’s language was added by UNESCO 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,” in reference to La Gomera’s 22,000 inhabitants. 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.
On a recent morning at a school in the port town of Santiago, a classroom of 6-year-olds had little difficulty identifying the whistling sounds corresponding to different colours, or the days of the week.
Things got trickier when the words were incorporated into full sentences, like “What is the name of the child with the blue shoes?” A couple of the children argued that they had instead heard the whistling sound for “yellow.” If interpreting a whistle isn’t always easy, making the correct sounds can be even harder. Most whistlers insert one bent knuckle into the mouth, but some use instead the tip of one or two fingers, while a few use a finger from each hand.
With its distinct geography, it’s easy to see why whistling came into use on the Canaries; 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 and with favourable wind conditions.
Minder covers Spain and Portugal for NYT
The New York Times