The most unique cultural trademark of the people of La Gomera is the silbo gomero, a whistled language which has been named a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. We had the chance to hear it in action, while at the Mirador Abrante.
This bizarre whistling language was developed centuries ago by the island’s original inhabitants, the Guanches, long before the arrival of the Spanish in the Canary Islands. Because of La Gomera’s deep ravines and long valleys (and the lack of telephones) people needed a way to make themselves heard, and a shrill, loud whistle can echo up or down the walls of a valley for over five kilometers. But a whistle isn’t always enough to get your point across… so the Guanches evolved a complex system of whistled patterns, based on their own spoken language.
Today, the silbo gomero has been transposed to carry the Spanish language. And it might be hard to believe, but they can say just about anything by whistling. Using a system of trills, breaks, and the natural musicality of Spanish, two people can carry on entire conversations, with very little lost in translation… and this was proven to us during an exhibition we happened to catch at the Mirador.
In front of a group of tourists, a waiter took the scarf from one lady, and placed it around the neck of a different woman. Also, he hid €20 in the hood of another person’s sweater. Then, another guy from Gomera entered the dining room, and began whistling with the waiter… within no time, the second guy had returned the scarf to its rightful owner, and found the hidden money.
Today, the silbo gomero is taught in schools on the island, as a required language alongside Spanish and English. Of course, its authentic purpose has vanished with the advent of cell phones, but the people of La Gomera seem to understand its patrimonial importance, and don’t want to see it die out completely.