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Canary Islanders Whistle as They Work

Silbo Gomero is a birdsong-like language that educators hope to save from extinction.

November 23, 2003|Sarah Andrews | Associated Press Writer

SAN SEBASTIAN, Canary Islands — Juan Cabello takes pride in not using a cellphone or the Internet to communicate. Instead, he puckers up and whistles.

Cabello is a "silbador," until recently a dying breed on tiny, mountainous La Gomera, one of Spain's Canary Islands off West Africa. Like his father and grandfather before him, Cabello, 50, knows "Silbo Gomero," a language that's whistled, not spoken, and can be heard more than two miles away.

This chirpy brand of chatter is thought to have come over with early African settlers 2,500 years ago. Now, educators are working hard to save it from extinction by making schoolchildren study it up to age 14.

Silbo -- the word comes from the Spanish verb silbar, meaning to whistle -- features four "vowels" and four "consonants" that can be strung together to form more than 4,000 words. It sounds just like bird conversation, and Cabello says it has plenty of uses.

"I use it for everything: to call to my wife, to tell my kids something, to find a friend if we get lost in a crowd," Cabello said.

In fact, he makes a living off Silbo, performing daily exhibitions at a restaurant on this island of 147 square miles and 19,000 people.

A snatch of dialogue in Silbo is posted at http://www.agulo.net/silbo/silbo.mp3 and translates as follows:

"Hey, Servando!"

"What?"

"Look, go tell Julio to bring the castanets."

"OK. Hey, Julio!"

"What?"

"Lili says you should go get the kids and have them bring the castanets for the party."

"OK, OK, OK."

Silbo was once used throughout the hilly terrain of La Gomera as an ingenious way of communicating over long distances. A strong whistle saved peasants from trekking over hill and dale to send messages or news to neighbors.

Then came the phone, and it's hard to know how many people use Silbo these days.

"A lot of people think they do, but there is a very small group who can truly communicate through Silbo and understand Silbo," said Manuel Carreiras, a psychology professor from the island of Tenerife. He specializes in how the brain processes language and has studied Silbo.

Since 1999, Silbo has been a required language in La Gomera's elementary schools. Some 3,000 students are studying it 25 minutes a week -- enough to teach the basics, said Eugenio Darias, a Silbo teacher and director of the island's Silbo program.

"There are few really good silbadores so far, but lots of students are learning to use it and understand it," he said. "We've been very pleased."

But almost as important as speaking -- sorry, whistling -- Silbo is studying where it came from, and little is known.

"Silbo is the most important pre-Hispanic cultural heritage we have," said Moises Plasencia, director of the Canary government's historical heritage department.

It might seem appropriate for a language that sounds like birdsong to exist in the Canary Islands, but scholarly theories as to how the archipelago got its name make no mention of whistling.

Little is known about Silbo's origins, but an important step toward recovering the language was the First International Congress of Whistled Languages, held in April in La Gomera. The congress, which will be repeated in 2005, brought together experts on various whistled languages.

Silbo-like whistling has been found in pockets of Greece, Turkey, China and Mexico, but none is as developed as Silbo Gomero, Plasencia said.

One study is looking for vestiges of Silbo in Venezuela, Cuba and Texas, all places to which Gomerans have historically immigrated during hard economic times.

Now Plasencia is heading an effort to have UNESCO declare it an "intangible cultural heritage" and support efforts to save it.

"Silbo is so unique and has many values: historical, linguistic, anthropological and aesthetic. It fits perfectly with UNESCO's requirements," he said.

Besides, Cabello said, it's good for just about anything except for romance: "Everyone on the island would hear what you're saying!"

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