Language is an obvious tool for communication. It’s not only a means to express thoughts and ideas, it is also a crucial component to building economic relationships, forging friendships, and binding cultural ties.
Did you know that there are an estimated 7,000 different languages spoken around the world? In addition, 90 percent of these languages are used by less than 100,000 people.
Despite there being about 500 million people who speak English, it isn’t even the most common language — Mandarin actually tops the list with over a billion people conversing in this tongue.
Human communication takes many forms as part of the soundscape that encompasses our daily lives.
But on La Gomera, one of Spain’s Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, residents are capable of expressing anything they want to say with a whistle, including approaching pirates, local gossip and business transactions. Yes, you heard right. A whistle.
Born out of necessity, this ancient, complex form of communication, called el silbo, or “the whistle,” originated centuries ago, and is unique to the island.
In the days before Facebook and text messages, this exotic call allowed messages to reach nearby towns in mere seconds, with the same quality as when it left someone’s lips. The ocean breeze can carry the sound through deep volcanic ravines nearly two miles away.
The whistles are phonetic and can also be employed in any language, as words and phrases are formed by the varying pitch of the whistle. In La Gomera, the whistling is quite complicated, with varying lengths, ranges, pauses and emphasis on vowels and consonants.
When technology reached the island, silbo started becoming a language that only the “old folks” kept alive. That’s when the government intervened and took action to ensure the language wouldn’t die out. Lessons are now required in all schools.
While whistled languages are relatively rare, they are located in other places across the globe, including in Alaska, Brazil, China, and Ethiopia.
Who knew entire conversations could be carried out by whistling? The next time you hear someone whistling, you might want to listen a little closer.