On Whistling

When I was young, there was an old Parsi couple who lived across the stairwell in our block of flats. As old Mr. Taraporewala climbed painfully up the stairs, he’d whistle, sometimes mournful tunes or recent Hindi movie jingles, but most of his repertoire consisted of what I suspected were self compositions. Mr. Taraporewala was quite old, and rather decrepit, but his whistling was loud, and limpid. I could hear it when he climbed the first step, and would hear it till he went inside his house, where I supposed his wife shut him up.

For that was what my parents did, when I proudly displayed my new skill to them. (I had practised for two whole months, listening to Mr. Taraporewala’s operatic arias for inspiration as he climbed the fifty‐odd steps to his flat). Mildly disappointed by my parents’ lack of enthusiasm, I demonstrated my virtuosity to other relatives and my family, only to be met with greater hostility. “Don’t whistle,” I was told, “only rowdies do.” “Be careful,” my grandmother warned, “you’ll get thieves into the house.”

I was to learn, slowly and torturously, through rebuffs, admonishments and cautions, that a considerable animosity exists towards whistling. Whistling lies somewhere in a grey zone between bad manners and being wrong for superstitious reasons. In a 1921 manual of etiquette written by ‘The Deans of Girls in Chicago High Schools’, we are told that whistling is improper as it is annoying in its gratuitous nature, and should never be indulged in at school. In south India, whistling is common, but it’s also ‘common’, and not something that a well‐bred (Brahmin) child would do. Russians believe that whistling indoors is bad (it whistles the money away), but whistling outdoors is acceptable. There seems to be a particular anathema to whistling indoors (and after dark): in Serbia, this peccadillo risks invasion by mice, and in Japan and India, by snakes or thieves.

There appears to be a stronger taboo on women whistling. The 1921 manual further instructs: ‘Girls, it is poor policy to call up boys often by telephone, and bad manners to whistle to attract their attention’. An old Irish proverb, (apocryphally attributed to the Bible), goes like this: A whistling woman and a crowing hen are both abominations to the Lordʺ. Is this interdict on female whistling related to the fact that there is something lewd, voyeuristic and lascivious about whistling? (‘Whistling Willie’, a statue of William of Orange in Rutgers University, supposedly whistles whenever a virgin walks by.)

Do the puckered lips of a whistler resemble lips asking for a kiss? If so, then women are probably denied the pleasure of whistling as it is believed to indicate a libertine disposition. There is reason to believe that whistling, despite being frowned upon, is understood to be a purely masculine sport. That explains the Irish proverb portraying whistling women as something unnatural. Some feminists interpret the proverb to reinforce the paradigm that women are voiceless, metaphorically and literally (and some whistle for that very reason).

There are, however, places on Earth where whistling, either by men or women, isn’t discouraged. In a small island in the North Atlantic, in fact, whistling is the primary method of communication. The inhabitants of La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, ‘speak’ a language that consists exclusively of whistles. ‘Silbadors’, or those who speak the Silbo Gomero language, use four vowels and four consonants to create any of the four thousand odd words in the Silbo Gomero vocabulary. The whistling of a Silbador travels across the ravines that radiate through the island, often up to three kilometres away. On La Gomera, the local government, clearly having not read the Chicago Deans of Girls’ Schools’ Manual, makes it compulsory for school children to learn to whistle, and to whistle well, just as Chicago Girls’ Schools teaches girls to speak well.

There are many who posit that whistling is not merely the tool of the layabout and the rascal. They see whistling not merely as a legitimate means of expression, but as a creative art form. One of them, Ronnie Ronalde, a British music hall singer in the twentieth century, popularized whistling, performing for over seven decades. Even in India, country of a million religious rules, whistling is gaining acceptance, perhaps due to the activities of the Indian Whistling Association, which holds whistling competitions and even publishes a magazine dedicated to whistling.

Whistling has been around for as long as anyone cares to remember. ‘I will hiss for them, and gather them; for I have redeemed them: and they shall increase as they have increased.’ (Zechariah 10:8, King James). ‘Hiss’ in most contemporary editions of the Bible is understood to mean ‘whistle’. Recent evidence suggests that whistling—using man made whistles—has been around for the past 100,000 years. In the Prolom‐II archaeological site in Crimea, scientists have discovered whistles made by Neanderthal Man from phalanges of ungulates and other animals, such as cave bear. These are the oldest sound‐producing devices in Europe, and these whistles can be traced from the Palaeolithic Age to the present day.

Every year, ardent whistlers flock to Louisburg, a small town in the United States that earns its fame by hosting the annual International Whistlers Convention. Now in its 29th year, the Convention attracts competitors from all over the world, who come to take part in a four day festival of whistling. Adult competitors are judged by a panel of music professionals who use rigorous methods to score them. Many of the whistlers attend every year, members of a minority so estranged from the rest of the world that theyʹre the only ones who understand each other. One of the whistlers at last year’s Convention was author Dorothy West, who ranked whistling with writing as her chief talents. Another whistler at the Convention, a Washington Gas executive, despite being aphasic from Alzheimerʹs, could whistle church music for hours.

However, the Deans of Chicago Girls’ Schools are right, (even old Mr Taraporewala could only whistle freely outside his house) and I must acknowledge that whistling is a little wearying to others, especially if the whistler thinks very highly of his skill, or needs to practise it often (as I do). An inveterate whistler, I am sometimes surprised by the jokes made at my whistling; (like that I can be heard in one block from another). I must acquiesce to the assertion that every successful whistler must be thankful to that woman who put up with our whistling when we were still on the steep end of our learning curve—Anna McNeill—or as we more commonly know her, Whistler’s Mother.