El Silbo Gomero: Communication at its finest

El Silbo Gomero: Communication at its finest

I usually find the run up to Christmas a bit rushed, busy and even slightly stressful. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out on to a Christmas shindig with friends or family, and I love wearing sparkles and drinking sparkles. But somehow the dark nights, the pressure of shopping for presents, and food, and the intensity of the cadence of Christmas socialising get to me.

This year has been all together different.

My family and I have been extremely privileged to be able to spend most of December in Lanzarote. It is my first visit to the Canary Islands and I must say I love what I have seen so far. It is beach weather on most days, which for December is a real treat. The people are super friendly, the seafood is fantastic and the whole coast line is so well organised, with walks, beaches, restaurants and cafes. The landscape is completely different to anything I have ever seen before and puts a whole new meaning to the title of the game my six year old is forever playing called “The floor is lava.” Nature, art and architecture all roll into one in some of the tourist attractions, which is a striking experience. And also I absolutely love the colours of the sky at sunrise and sunset.

Having been here for a while and relaxed into the place, I became curious about the whole area of the Canary islands, its history and culture. As I sat drinking my coffee in the sun, and while googling, I discovered several some very interesting facts. I didn’t previously realise, for example, that the islands take their name NOT from the small birds called canaries, but from a latin term “Insula Canaria” meaning Island of Dogs. This could be because of the large population of seals (or ‘sea dogs” as the Romans called them) that used to inhabit the island. There is also a theory that the island’s first inhabitants worshipped dogs, and hence the name.

When looking into the history of the islands further, I found something that fascinated and excited me. My discovery was “El Silbo Gomero”. This is an old whistling language that is spoken by the people of the Canary Island of Gomera. The language is based on Spanish, but uses whistling sounds to form words. The language is thought to have been developed for the purpose of communicating in the mountains and across the ravines on the island of Gomera. Whistling sounds can travel a distance of up to two miles, thus being much less taxing, and much more effective for the communicator than speaking or shouting. It is a fantastic way to communicate across long distances, and to bits of land that you can not just pop across to, if for example there is a deep ditch or hill in your way. Sheperds on the island still use it.

But more than that, it is taught at primary school. It is a treasured part of the history, culture and identity of the island, and conscious effort and investment is made to ensure that it is not lost. In a documentary about the whistled language of Gomera, a teacher talks about being able to help young kids maintain a part of their cultural identity by teaching them their whistle language.

I love this. I love it because I am fascinated ways of communication and connection between people.

Doing only a little bit more digging, I discovered that whistle languages exist all around the world. They have developed out of necessity for humans to communicate in conditions of isolation because of reasons like distance, noise levels, and night. The whistle languages are often used for specific activities, like social announcements, shepherding, hunting, fishing, or courtship.
You can hear whistlers connecting with each other in parts of Turkey, Morocco, Mexico and my own homeland Greece. In the village of Antio in Euboea (an island to the Northeast of Athens), the entire population communicated by whistling in the 1980s. It is less common now, with only a few of the village population still able to whistle- speak.

In Silbo Gomero, and the other whistling languages, I see a fantastic resourcefulness and determination to maintain communication and connection. Is there a ravine in the way so I can’t reach you? Are you across the sea from me, or at the bottom of the mountain? That’s ok! I’ll whistle my chat to you: whether it is to tell you that a storm is coming, to call you in for dinner, share with you where the best catch of the day is, or even admire your beauty and tell you I love you. I guess it’s because of the high levels of isolation and loneliness I have felt in recent times, but it excites me to think that there are ways to communicate and connect that overcome difficulties, and get the message across. To me, El Silbo Gomero and other whistling languages represent communication at its finest.

Community | Connecting | Travel
Community | Connecting | Travel

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Katerina Faulds