Pina Nunes wrote:
Whistling language preserved
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 three kilometres 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 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 says.
In fact, he makes a living off Silbo, performing daily exhibitions at a restaurant on this island of 380 square kilometres and 19,000 people.
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 neighbours.
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," says 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, says 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 says. ``We've been very pleased."
But almost as important as speaking — sorry, whistling — Silbo is studying where it came from, and little is known about that.
"Silbo is the most important pre-Hispanic cultural heritage we have," says Moises Plasencia, the 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.
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 says. Now, Plasencia is heading an effort to have UNESCO declare it an "intangible cultural heritage" and support efforts to save it.
The BBC world service had a good program on this last week, which I'm sure can still be accessed from their website (www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice). Obviously, listening to it may give a another dimension that waould not necessarilly be readilly appreciated by reading about it.