By William Zhang
La Gomera, a volcanic island located in the Canary archipelago, is celebrated not only for its natural beauty, but also its unique whistled language known as Silbo Gomero. This language can be traced back to the original inhabitants, the Guanches, who likely brought it with them from North Africa in the fifth century BCE (Rodríguez-Varela et al.). Following European colonization in the 15th century, Spanish settlers adapted Silbo Gomero to their native tongue: Castilian Spanish (UNESCO).
Over the next few centuries, Silbo Gomero became widely used among farmers and shepherds who needed to communicate across steep valleys and deep ravines that would otherwise take hours to cross. Many villagers also used the language to deliver public advisories, such as fire warnings and event announcements, to distant communities (Faccini). Due to its whistled nature, Silbo Gomero could transmit complex messages over distances of up to three kilometers away (Szilagyi).
During the 1950s, however, the development of the telephone and road networks led to a significant decline in the use of Silbo Gomero. Furthermore, economic difficulties forced many inhabitants to migrate to nearby countries such as Tenerife and Venezuela. By the end of the 1980s, the once-thriving language was on the verge of extinction (Plitt).
In response to the decline, initiatives began within the La Gomeran community to open facilities dedicated to teaching Silbo Gomero to children (“Silbo Gomero, the Whistling Language of La Gomera”). Authorities soon followed, and in July of 1999, it was officially included into the school curriculum. On September 30th, 2009, UNESCO added it to their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, declaring that the State must commit to putting safeguarding measures in place to preserve the whistled language (UNESCO).
Today, Silbo Gomero is spoken by over 22,000 inhabitants (UNESCO). It is a mandatory subject in both primary and secondary schools, and the School of Silbo Gomero was established for students who wish to continue learning the language and become professional instructors (“Silbo Gomero, the Whistling Language of La Gomera”). The Government of the Canary Islands has also released its own instructional materials, titled “El Silbo Gomero, Materiales didácticos”.
Since Silbo Gomero was adapted to Castilian Spanish in the late 15th century, it shares many characteristics with spoken Spanish. To capture the sounds of the five Spanish vowels, it uses a high pitched and low pitched whistle. Similarly, Spanish consonants are captured using high/low and continuous/interrupted distinctions in the pitch (Trujillo 47, 95). Below are two phonetic vowel charts comparing Silbo Gomero with Spanish.
- Interested in learning about other whistled languages? There are over 80 cultures around the world that have whistled versions of their local language: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/studying-whistled-languages-180978484/.
- Want to learn more about how Silbo Gomero works? Read a linguistic analysis of the language by Ramón Trujillo here: http://silbo-gomero.com/LinguisticAnalysis/GomeranWhistle1990English.html#3.
- Here are the instructional materials provided by the Government of the Canary Islands: http://silbo-gomero.com/pconcan_Silbo_Gomero.pdf.
- More links about Silbo Gomero: http://silbo-gomero.com/links.html.
Faccini, Angello. “El Silbo.” Global Oneness Project, www.globalonenessproject.org/library/films/el-silbo. Accessed 5 Aug. 2023.
Plitt, Laura. “Silbo Gomero: A Whistling Language Revived.” BBC News, 11 Jan. 2013, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20953138.
Rodríguez-Varela, Ricardo, et al. “Genomic Analyses of Pre-European Conquest Human Remains from the Canary Islands Reveal Close Affinity to Modern North Africans.” Current Biology, 26 Oct. 2017, www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31257-5.
“Silbo Gomero, the Whistling Language of La Gomera.” La Gomera, lagomera.travel/en/silbo-gomero-the-whistling-language-of-la-gomera/. Accessed 5 Aug. 2023.
Szilagyi, Patricia. “The Whistled Language of La Gomera.” DW, 9 June 2021, www.dw.com/en/the-whistled-language-of-la-gomera/a-57623983.
Trujillo, Ramón. “El Silbo Gomero: Análisis Lingüístico.” The Whistling Language of La Gomera, December 1978, silbo-gomero.com/LinguisticAnalysis/GomeranWhistle1990English.html.
UNESCO. “Decision of the Intergovernmental Committee: 4.COM 13.71.” Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2009, ich.unesco.org/en/decisions/4.COM/13.71.