Los Canarios exhibition brochure

The Silbo

Another surprise to the myths of the Canary Islands: the Guanches belong to the limited number of small ethnic groups of our planet that are practicing a whistling language, known as silbo (lat sibilus, whistling) or Silbo Gomero because it is originally from and used in the island of La Gomera. It should not come as a surprise that you can communicate with a language in which the phrases are composed by sequences of whistles. Sign language, or language of the deaf and dumb, does something similar through sequences of gestures. Scholars of linguistics have known for at least a century that a language may be realised with every kind of physical perceivable support: voice, gesture, whistling, percussion, dance (body in general), instruments, and, why not, smells and flavors. The language transfer swings from simple transliterations (the Morse alphabet,) to the complexity of the translation, where not only the sound units are transliterated (as normally happens in writing), but also lexical concepts and phrase constructions are projected and transformed from one system to another. The silbo gomero, clearly speaking, is a mixture of transliteration and translation. It transliterates vowels and consonants: two distinct sounds for all the vowels and four sounds for the consonants. This means that silbo transliterates mangling the words. At the same time it has a proper dictionary of 4000 words (whistle sequences) to refer to concrete objects and abstract concepts of common use. (chicken, bread, day, late, and I love you). There is no doubt that, differently from writing (tracks on a surface), born 10,000 years ago and massively widespread among humans, whistling is a very limited and diffused way of speaking, and the few existent cases are considered not more than an exotic curiosity. But – be careful – if a communication system takes hold, even if in a limited environment, this means that it fulfils a function there. Among the mountains and the valleys of the Canaries, beaten by the Atlantic wind, the silbo, performed with its powerful whistles, permits a long distance communication, that anticipated for centuries the present mobiles. You may well imagine the attractiveness that this phenomenon had on Francesca Phillips: of course she took the opportunity for an enquiry. In this case the photography gave the way to a short movie. In the same way in which she was admitted to the shadows and the silences of the Trappists, she has followed the sentiments of the Guanches and testified to silbo, recognised by UNESCO as immaterial human patrimony, and now officially taught to new generations in Canarian schools.

We started by stating that the islands are special places, both open and closed to the external world, and because of this every island is a place of enigma and surprise. Observing the images that Francesca Phillips chose to make during her research, we can see the intellectual and emotional reciprocity between her camera and the Archipelago. Certainly her photographic eye entered the soul of that land as well as of its inhabitants. Thanks to these images the Archipelago reveals itself in a new light, to the immigrants and visitors that arrive, and of the Guanches who continue to live there.

Massimo Prampolini November 2014