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Whistling now compulsory in the Canaries

THE ISLAND of Gomera in the Canaries is riven not only by steep canyons and ridges but also over whether to keep its unique whistling language, evolved centuries ago, to communicate across the inhospitable terrain.

Convinced there is more to it than "put your lips together and blow", the Canary Islands government has made the "Gomera Whistle" a compulsory subject in primary schools and an option in secondary schools. "If we take no action, the whistle will die. It used to be the only way islanders could communicate instantaneously over long distances, but the telephone is killing it off," said Rogelio Botanz, of the Canary Islands education department, yesterday. Several thousand of Gomera's 12,000 residents whistle but critics say making the language compulsory goes too far and invites ridicule.

For centuries the whistle was the principal form of communication among farmers and shepherds. It fell into disuse in the 1960s. Strenuous efforts over the past 20 years kept it alive, "but it was difficult, because people thought it was rural and backward, and were ashamed to admit they communicated in this way", Mr Botanz added.

The Gomera whistle compresses spoken sounds to two vowels and four consonants using whistles of varying tone and length. "It decodes the spoken message like a phonetic alphabet," Mr Botanz said.

The sound is formed by putting the fingers of one hand in the mouth and using the other hand as a megaphone. The result is reminiscent of a high- intensity version of the sounds made by the Clangers cartoon characters. "It can be used to render any language without too many vowels. I could even whistle `Don Quixote'," he added.

The technique may originate from Berbers in the high Atlas in Morocco. Experts say Turks in the Kuskoy valley near the Black Sea evolved a similar whistle.