People don’t whistle the way they used to, and it’s a mighty shame. Whistling has been around for centuries as a form of communication and entertainment. Shepherds used whistling to call their dogs. Before electronic communication, it was used on stage in theaters to cue the lowering of sets.
In the Canary Islands of Spain, an entire whistling language of more than 4,000 words, Silbo Gomero, has managed to survive. The island, segmented by deep ravines, traditionally used the language to communicate as far as two miles away, and is said to be as old as the Romans. Nearly wiped out by modern technologies, the language is still taught to young school children so as not to be lost. Other areas of Turkey, France, and Africa also use forms of whistling language.
Years ago I spent a summer in Russia, where I constantly got chastised for whistling indoors. It turns out that in many Slavic countries, people believe that whistling indoors will cause your money to fly out the window (“whistling away your money.”) Superstitions against whistling also exists in the UK, where the spirits of “Seven Whistlers” foretell death.
Americans, however, have a more celebratory approach to whistling. Think of any ballgame or sporting event, where whistling is used as applause. Wild West cowboys whistled to their horses and dogs. Early vaudeville shows featured professional whistlers, and whistling has long been a hallmark of recorded music, featured in everything from Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard and One Republic’s Good Life, to my personal favorite, the Scorpion’s fantastic Cold War-era song, Winds of Change.
Whistling is the consummate boy pasttime, immortalized by Opie in the opening credits to the Andy Griffith Show, walking down the road with his dad, fishing pole in one hand, skipping stone in the other. Every good ole American boy needs a dog at his heels and a whistle on his lips.
I was reminded of this the other day when my six-year-old son pulled me aside to show me his latest whistling trick. He’s learned to warble his whistle to mimic a bird call. It sounds just like a porcelain bird whistle my husband brought back from Spain a decade ago.
Whistling used to be a right of passage, something you learned as soon as those two adult front teeth came popping through the gums. It was the language of street games and the music of laborers. Perhaps now because of earbuds and the ubiquity of recorded music, whistling seems to have fallen silent.
I polled my own boys to discover their whistling acumen and was astonished that not all of them know how to whistle! I can’t believe I’ve failed thus far as a parent. How are we going to round up the wild ponies, or move to the Canary Islands, or recreate Opie’s childhood if every single one of my boys doesn’t know how to whistle? It looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.
Is whistling a part of your son's childhood? Here are some ideas to bring back the lost art of whistling:
•Have a family whistling competition. See who can whistle the longest, the loudest.
•Play name that tune, all whistling.
•Watch the history of whistling in music here.
•This guy is supposed to be one of the world's best whistlers, and takes the art to a whole new level.