Friday, November 1, 2013

The whistling language of La Gomera

I don't know if it happens to you but I sometimes say things, in Spanish, to Spaniards and they stare back at me blankly obviously not having understood a word. Then comprehension flashes across their face and they repeat what I just said, word for word, but now they understand.

It's not that I got the words wrong. My mistake was in the sound, stress or rhythm of what I said – I didn't, for instance, trill the r or lisp the d enough. We Britons learn certain sounds when we are very young to go with how our language sounds and Spanish simply has different sounds and patterns.

Navajo is supposedly the most difficult language in the world to learn but close behind must be the Brazilian Pirahã language. Both have sounds that are almost unknown in other languages. Pirahã can be whistled, hummed or encoded in music and it can be spoken without consonants or vowels by simply changing pitch, stress and rhythm.

Spain too has a whistled language. It's called silbo gomero or Gomeran whistle. Nobody knows quite what its origins are but when the Europeans got to La Gomera, one of the Canary islands, in the 1500s the original inhabitants were using it.

In the modern whistle the Spanish language is replaced by two whistled vowels and four consonants. Originally of course the whistles interpreted the indigenous language but nowadays it's Spanish. It can easily be understood two miles away and is perfect for the deep valleys and steep ravines of la Gomera.

As late as 1950 whistle was in widespread use not so much as a pleasure but as a necessity. If you couldn't whistle you would have to walk to pass on a message. Learning to whistle was less exhausting than walking up and down hills.

In the 1950s when many Gomerans had to emigrate to find work and when the road and phone networks began to improve the number of whistlers began to decline. By the end of the 1980s there were only a few whistlers left. It was generally disdained by the majority of the modernising population who saw it as something from the past suited to country bumpkins. Not so the government of the island who decided that it was a heritage to be cherished and the politicians made it a compulsory subject in primary schools at the end of the 90s.

It's not often that you'll come across spontaneous flamenco as you stroll the streets of Triana but there are plenty of tablaos for tourists; the same is true of whistling. Stand atop a hill in Gomera and you're more likely to hear the ringtones of mobile phones than whistling but there are demonstrations for tourists everywhere. In fact just as those tablaos in Triana have become a bit of a cliché disdained by purists there is a concern amongst academics that the essence of the whistling language will be lost amidst the touristy glitz.

And it can't be difficult to learn. Slim summed it up in To Have and Have not. “You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.”

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