The small, volcanic island of La Gomera, just off the coast of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, is a hard place on which to get about. Precipitous hills are separated from one another by deep valleys that can take an age to cross. If you lived there and wanted to contact your neighbour, in the days before telephones let alone more modern forms of electronic communication, you’d have to….er….whistle for it. Literally.
La Gomera is the last real outpost of the unique Canary Islands whistling language, ’el silbo’. And it is easy to see why it has not died out in this rocky corner of the world. You could shout across one of those deeply riven valleys until you were blue in the face and no-one would hear you. But a piercing whistle is a different matter.
And those whistles have been developed into a complete language, so that the inhabitants of La Gomera can ‘talk’ to someone on the other side of a valley without speaking a word. “Pitch variations mean that you can carry out entire conversations by just whistling,” explained one resident of La Gomera.
Originally, el silbo was ‘spoken’ on Tenerife, Gran Canaria and tiny El Hierro as well as La Gomera. Spanish settlers arriving in the Canary Islands in the sixteenth century were amazed by it, and assumed that it had been developed by the islands’ original Guanche people. But Guanche history is lost in the mists of time, and it is now thought that the Guanche were preceded by even earlier settlers from the neighbouring coast of Western Sahara.
And here’s an odd coincidence. Arab folklore tells of a wicked tribal leader in the Western Sahara who back in the mists of time put down a rebellion, had all the rebels’ tongues cut out, then exiled them to the deserted islands we now know as the Canaries. Could those exiles, unable to speak, have invented the whistling language? Certainly a written language, that is neither Spanish nor Guanche in origin, has been found carved on to rocks on Tenerife.
This unique medium of communication was about to die out in in the Canary Islands during the late 20th century, but on La Gomera the island’s government came to the rescue by requiring all Gomeran children to study ‘el silbo’ in school. It is now officially protected by UNESCO.