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The Art of Whistling

By: Emilie (Y13)


Upon the isle of La Gomera, the enduring linguistic tradition of Silbo Gomero, a whistled communication system, persists as a means for individuals, particularly shepherds, to convey messages across expansive distances. Concurrently, members of the animal kingdom employ whistling as a mechanism to signal threats and warn others. Noteworthy among these species is the intricate communication system of prairie dogs, which stands as one of the most sophisticated within the animal kingdom, capable of conveying nuanced information detailing size, speed, shape, species, and clothing of a threat – all through the medium of whistling.

Despite its historical deployment for entertainment purposes, whistling carries with it negative connotations. In the UK, a persuasive superstition surrounds the concept of the "Seven Whistlers," which are believed to be birds or spirits whose whistled tune carries a foreshadowing of death or destruction. Paradoxically, whistling on a ship at sea is believed to be able to increase the wind strength.


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whistling pervaded the auditory landscape of urban thoroughfares. However, whistling emerged from historical anecdotes as rooted in a classist society as it showed that the ‘whistlers’ of society tended to be postal carriers, milkmen, and other delivery staff. Indicative of societal norms, luxury establishments even displayed signs cautioning both staff and customers against engaging in whistling.


Evidently, the once-prominent art of whistling is in a state of decline, partly because of the decrease in popularity of music that is conducive and possible to whistle. People like music in their lives. In the past, when music wasn’t readily available, people would whistle tunes that they had heard in music halls. They would then go on to listen to the radio, music in movies, buy the records and learn the tunes. Nowadays, people have their favourite music pumped directly into their brains via earbuds and therefore have no desire or need to create their own melodies to pass the time.

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