Give a Little Whistle

Cell phones have become a main means of communication in the modern world. To some degree, that has become almost comically true; almost all of us can remember a time when our mobile service has been less an adequate given our voice or data needs, and the frustrations that have swept in with that lack of signal strength. But of course, cell phones are relatively new, and the idea of always-on communications is also novel to those even a half-generation ago.

But the need for real-time communications is as old as language itself. And in theory, the places which are the least accessible are the places where immediate communications are most important. If you’re isolated from others, the value and relative importance of being able to talk to the outside world, without having to waste time traveling or otherwise transporting that message, could be enormous. Conversely, people isolated by terrain are the least likely to have adequate cell phone service. Every once in a while, you find a culture built around an innovative form of communication which modern technology is slow to render moot. That is what is happening in with the Silbadors of the Canary Islands. They whistle.

The Silbadors live on the island of La Gomera, a 142 square mile (370 km^2) volcanic, nearly circular dot in the Atlantic off the northern shore of Africa. Wikipedia describes the island’s unique shape as “like an orange that has been cut in half and then split into segments, which has left deep ravines […] between them.” Traveling through the ravines is difficult and time-consuming, and creating infrastructure to allow for communication across them was similarly expensive and hard. Centuries ago — perhaps before the year 1,000 B.C.E. — the indigenous people of the island, called Guanches, developed a language of whistles now known as Silbo Gomero. (“Silbo” translates to “whistle.”) In 2008, “language learning community” put together an ad/mini-documentary on the “speakers” of Silbo Gomero, seen below. As you’ll see, while the practice is ancient, it has modern applications. One of the Silbadors notes that “there are places where mobiles don’t work because there is no network coverage; Silbo never loses coverage.”




But as technology has advanced, the need for whistle-based communications has waned. As the BBC reported, “whistling began to decline in the 1950s, when economic difficulties forced most of the whistlers to emigrate, mainly to neighbouring Tenerife and Venezuela. The growing road network and later, the development of the mobile phone, deprived silbo of its practical function.” And by the 1980s, the language was at risk of dying out. But now, learning the language is compulsory for students of La Gomera. 

The language may sound like mere whistling to you. As Wikipedia reports, researchers believe that the only way to recognize the noises as language is to actually learn the language (at least to some degree), finding that “while non-speakers of Silbo merely processed Silbo as whistling, speakers of Silbo processed the whistling sounds in the same linguistic centers of the brain that processed Spanish sentences.” Unfortunately, you may need to travel to La Gomera to learn it — there doesn’t seem to be an online resource teaching it.

Bonus fact: On January 8, 1968, Stax Records released Otis Redding’s song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It is easily recognizable by Redding whistling for the last fifteen to twenty seconds the song. The whistling, though, wasn’t supposed to be there. Redding died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, and had intended to return to studio to record new lyrics over the last part of the song; the whistling was a placeholder. When Redding died, Stax decided to release the song anyway. That turned out to be a good decision. The song hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart and won two Grammys, and became the first single released after the performer’s death to receive that first honor.

From the ArchivesThe World’s Largest Cave: Discovered because of its odd whistling noise.

Related: “The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages” by K. David Harrison. Four stars on 10 reviews.