What Luck For Whom? - Chapter Two

01/07/2013 - 09:15
  • The Silbadores
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The characteristics of whistling
The valley of La Laja, La Gomera

1. Perfect adaption of the landscape

If you picture the island, it is obvious that the paths across this mountainous landscape with its peaks and deep slopes are exhausting and slow. Even today, with a car - imagine how it was before roads were built. The whistle is perfectly adapted to this landscape. It echoes off the cliff walls and carries through the ravines.

For example, to carry a message from one side of the island to the other requires six whistlers and ten minutes.

The island's original inhabitants, the Guanches, were extremely knowledgeable about the precise sites – the so-called campanas – from which the whistles could best be given and heard. This knowledge appears to be lost today, however.

2. A means of communication with no technical assistance

That the whistles allow one to avoid difficult and lengthy journeys is ideal, if one needs something to be brought up in the mountains from down in the village.

We heard one example of a communication in whistles at the beginning. As a reminder, the first Silbador said: “Bring some large leather bags!“

The other, more remarkable issue, is that Silbo Gomero requires absolutely no technical assistance or support.

For smoke signals you need flammable materials and fire. For talking drums you need a drum. For bells you require a bell tower and, of course, bells. Etcetera...

There is no other method of communication which needs no instrument but the human body to cover such large distances. That is quite remarkable! And whistling is more than equal to church bells, as they only work within a range of 80 dB.

3. Whistles make themselves heard

A whistle can easily reach a volume of 100 dB. That is roughly equivalent to a chainsaw or the music in a disco. In addition, whistles occur in the frequency range to which the human ear is most sensitive. Interestingly, this is not the frequency of human speech. This is between 125 Hz and 250 Hz – whistles occur between 1,300 Hz and 4,000 Hz.

So imagine two people arguing in Silbo Gomero!

Don Antonio Manrique gave an account of just this in 1885:

“The women also speak in whistles, some of them having a masterful grasp of it. When an argument breaks out amongst them, the curses flow like rivers from their mouths and the conflict cuts through the air like the screams of birds of prey.”

4. This whistle is never private

The fact that the whistle is so loud also means that it is never private. It is simply not possible to whistle without everyone else hearing it.

5. The whistle as alarm and signal

The physical qualities of whistling make them perfectly suited for giving warnings or commands.

Here is an example:
Tax collectors are on the way to investigate the diluting of milk. The mountain people warn each other with whistles: “Look out, he's coming!”

6. The anonymity of whistles

The tax collector would probably not be able to decipher the whistle. And even if he could, there is no way he could identify and locate the whistler.

The whistle is the maximal extension of the human body. When you shout you risk being seen. A voice carries for a maximum of 40 metres, a scream or shout for 200 metres, but a whistle can be heard for one kilometre or even further. The whistle renders the whistler invisible and anonymous. And it is also impossible to tell whether it is a man or a woman who is whistling.

Trained whistlers can, however, identify each other on the basis of intonation, and are even able to differentiate regional dialects.

7. Not a secret language

Now one could be excused for thinking that Silbo Gomero is the ideal secret language. This was the thinking during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Talented whistlers were used to transmit messages. But these messages were swiftly deciphered: not by spies, but because there were Silbadores – whistlers – on both sides.

El Silbo is therefore not a secret language. As a means of communication it is very “public”, the “speaker” can neither know nor control who hears or understands him.

8. The whistle and the collective

In the case of the warning - “Look out, he's coming!” - it isn't known who is whistling, who is being warned and above all how many people are listening.

It is in the anonymity of the whistle, and above all that it can be heard by many people at once, that Don Antonio Manrique sees another advantage. He writes in 1885 in A Strange Language:

“At first glance it is not possible to enumerate all the advantages which lie in such a bizarre language. A single whistle can speak to a million people simultaneously – a telegraph can not.”     

But 100 years later the whistled language had nearly become silent, extinct.

Why did this happen, considering all the advantages:

  • You don’t need any auxiliary means.
  • You can communicate quickly across large distances - and it is less tiring and more effective than shouting.
  • The transmitter of a message remains anonymous.
  • It might even prevent you from having unwanted guests.
  • It might even save your ass, under certain circumstances.

The 19th century, the Golden Age, for those who believed in technological progress, wasn’t the Golden Age for Silbo Gomero. It marks the beginning of Silbo Gomero’s end.

At the end of the 19th century, economic hardship drove the people from the mountains down to the lowlands, and further away to Cuba and Venezuela. A second and third wave of emigration followed World War 2, and during the tourist boom of the 1960s and 70s on the neighbouring islands. People simply moved to places where there was work. Where thy could find jobs…

With a population of 23,000 people we may not be talking about massive numbers, but this nonetheless had an effect.

Nowadays, the most widely voiced opinion is that it was because of the widespread establishment of a telephone network. The construction of roads across the island certainly also played a major role. But these cannot be the only reasons.

A third factor is that the whistling clearly identifies a person's origin – namely, that he comes from higher up, from the mountains. It had to be a herdsman, then, an “uncultured”, “uneducated”, “old-fashioned” person. Thus it is understandable that people stopped whistling.