The Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa, are famous for their huge marine biodiversity, carnivals and tourism. Also, there is another reason… the Whistle of La Gomera or el Silbo Gomero!
La Gomera is the second-smallest of the main islands in Canary Island chain that is marked by craggy volcanic mountains crisscrossed with hiking trails. In higher altitudes, dense forests of ferns and moss-covered trees grow in the mists of Garajonay National Park. Toward the coast, the Valle Gran Rey canyon leads past the whitewashed cliffside village of La Calera and ends at black-sand Atlantic beaches. The unique feature of this island is its harmonic language el Silbo Gomero, a whistled register of Spanish used by the inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that get transmitted through the island. The language enables messages to be exchanged over a distance of up to 5km. Although the language has been used in Europe for many years, the inhabitants of La Gomera still use the Silbo Gomero language!
La Gomera Island
Silbo Gomero is, basically, a transposition of Spanish from speech to whistling. This oral phoneme-whistled phoneme substitution emulates Spanish phonology through a reduced set of whistled phonemes. The UNESCO declared Silbo Gomero as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2009. La Gomera inhabitants do not pronounce any words, but communicate with others only by blowing whistles in different tunes…
Experts opine that the tradition of communicating with whistles began in the Roman Period. The inhabitants of some other places in the world, too, communicate in a likewise manner. However, Silbo Gomero is different, as it has a complete linguistic structure, phonetic transcription, vowels and consonants! Today, nearly 22,000 people use this language.
The beating heart of the Canary Islands
There are disagreements among experts over the origin of this language. When the Spaniards occupied this area in the 15th Century, the island’s original inhabitants, the Guanches, used the Silbo Gomero language. Some believe that the Guanches had arrived in La Gomera from North Africa. And, the language was widely practiced in La Gomera till 1940-50. However, many people left the island for other parts of Canary Island chain due to an economic crisis in 1950. The use of telephone and the introduction of roadways communication system also reduced the usage of Silbo Gomero language. The use of this language decreased further in 1950-80s when the service sector replaced the agrarian economy, there.
Many used to consider Silbo Gomero as the language of farming class people, and no one would be interested in learning this language in the coming years. However, the concept changed after Ramón Trujillo of the University of La Laguna published his book ‘EL SILBO GOMERO análisis lingüístico‘ in 1978. The publication encouraged scholars to conduct researches on Silbo Gomero, giving the language a new lifeline in 1980. The Local Administration also included the language in school curriculum, allowing children to learn Silbo Gomero. The language was declared as ‘Ethnographic Heritage‘ in 1999!
Children learning Silbo Gomero Language
The ancient language of La Gomera Island, now, bridges its past and with the future. According to the Linguists, this language has only two vowels and four consonants. These six alphabets translate the Spanish into a harmonic language. Other languages can also be translated into Silbo Gomero! There is no role of vocal cords in this language, as one can whistle by producing sound from air through her/his mouth. Usually, people use their lips, tongues and fingers to produce sounds or to blow whistle. According to experts, people – who communicate in Silbo Gomero – also have excellent hearing skills. All these features are important in the study of linguistic evolution.
Death Whistle is a fine example of how the language of La Gomera helps each and every member of the community follow their ancient socio-cultural tradition. Usually, one starts giving this whistle from the top of the hill so that others can hear it from far away. This person is called ‘Link‘. The Links transfer the messages, came from one group, to another. While returning to homes after completing the day’s work in the evening, the Link responds to whistle coming from the top of the hill. If somebody dies on that day, the Link mentions her/his name through whistle in order to inform other members of the community. Slowly, everyone living on the island receive the news, and remember the person who left them forever. Generation after generation, residents of La Gomera have maintained this unique culture.
Film-maker and photographer Francesca Phillips wrote and directed a documentary on the usage of Silbo Gomero in La Gomera, titled ‘Written in the Wind‘ (2009), and the 26-minute film won the ‘Best Short Documentary in Anthropology‘ at The World Mountain Documentary Festival held in Qinghai, China in 2010. The film helps viewers understand how the pre-colonial traditional harmonic language has become the main cultural identity of La Gomera residents…
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