One effect of global imperialism on the peoples of the world is the increasing decline of language diversity. In the efforts to bring the world into a monolithic whole many local indigenous languages are declining and even disappearing. According to the Endangered Languages Project over half of the world’s 7,000 known languages are in danger of disappearing in the next 100 years. This is greater a rate than species extinction going on now. Many languages have already disappeared entirely as their last speakers pass away. Thus the efforts to preserve languages is an area in the cultural arena that should be stood by. Here is a report of efforts in La Gomera, a Spanish island in the Canary Islands, to continue their unique whistling language into the next generations.
On a Spanish island, an ancient whistling language that once seemed to be dying out is now undergoing a revival.
The night has not yet fallen in La Gomera, one of the smallest Canary Islands.
From the top of the hill I can see, scattered in the distance, a few old houses. To my right, a row of black trees is a stark reminder of the fires that struck this Spanish island off the coast of Morocco last summer.
I close my eyes to avoid being distracted by the landscape and make an effort to hear. I’m trying to discern, among the echo of the wind and the noise from the cars that from time to time drive along the road, the sounds of silbo gomero or Gomeran whistle, an ancient language the locals have assured me is still in use.
This method of communication, in which the Spanish language is replaced by two whistled vowels and four consonants, has a peculiarity perfectly suited to this landscape of deep valleys and steep ravines. It has the ability to travel up to two miles (3.2km), much further and with less effort than shouting.
There are no certainties about its origins. It is known that when the first European settlers arrived at La Gomera in the 15th Century, the inhabitants of the island – of North African origin – communicated with whistles.
These whistles reproduced the indigenous language. With the arrival of the Spanish, the locals adapted the whistling language to Spanish.
So the most likely theory is that the whistle came with the settlers from Africa, where there are records of other whistled languages.
Some locals recall its widespread use in the 1940s and 50s.
“In the old days, when the mountain caught fire, something that happens quite frequently in the island, the Guardia Civil came to pick us up,” says Lino Rodriguez, an old whistler with a cracked smoking voice.
“And no matter what we were doing, they put us in a truck and drove us to put out the fire.
“So, to avoid them, we passed a message between us whistling: ‘You have to hide, the Guardia Civil is coming!’ And because they didn’t whistle, they didn’t understand what we were saying and couldn’t find us.”