A Language That Consists Entirely Of Whistling

Reconstruction of a Guanche settlement of Tenerife
Reconstruction of a Guanche settlement of the Canary Islands

History

The Canary Islands is a Spanish autonomous region located 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of the coast of Morocco and some 1500 kilometres south of the Spanish mainland. They are part of a collection of four volcanic archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean known as Macaronesia.

Map of the Canary Islands
Map of the Canary Islands
Macaronesia map-Azores-Madeira-Canary Islands-Cape-Verde
Macaronesia Map: Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands, Cape-Verde

Genomic Analysis has confirmed that the first settlers of the Canary Islands moved to the region from North Africa sometime during the first millennium BC, following the desertification of the Sahara desert after the last glacial period around 4200 BCE.

The original indigenous inhabitants of the Canary Islands archipelago were known as Guanches.

Silbo Gomero Language

Silbo Gomero is the language spoken on the island of La Gomera, in the Canary Islands of Spain, and is made entirely from whistled sounds. It evolved to allow fast public communication across distances of over 5km across the narrow valleys and deep ravines that permeate the island.

Africans brought with them their Berber languages. Over the last two millennia, Silbo Gomero evolved from its North African roots and was adapted into Spanish as Castilian invasions brought the language to La Gomera. Silbo Gomero was adopted in the 16th century after the last Guanches adapted the original Guanche language to Spanish. Although used by Guanches prior to the Spanish settlement, Silbo is now the sibilant form of Spanish.

The Whistling language uses six compressed sounds for communication, two vowels and four consonants, which can be blown at rising or falling pitches to form more than 4,000 words.

It is estimated to be spoken by over 22,000 people of the La Gomera inhabitants.

One study showed that Silbo Gomero is recognized at the brain’s “language” centre by people who are Silbo whistlers. In contrast, normal Spanish speakers who are not Silbo whistlers did not register the whistle as a language.

This is how the Whistling Language of La Gomera sounds nowadays.

Whistling Language of La Gomera

Decline and Revival

Silbo Gomero fell out of fashion between the decades of 1960s and 1980s. The Spanish middle class did not want their children associated with the country whistling language of peasants.

After a period of decline, Silbo Gomero began a revival as a cultural asset in the 1990s. It is now taught heavily in state schools to every child attending primary school in La Gomera and is supported by the government as a significant element of the cultural heritage of the islands.

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included the whistling language on UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity educational list, to encourage the local community to preserve, protect, and continue using this unique language. The Spanish is structured so that the inhabitants of the islands can imitate the region’s spoken language — Castilian Spanish — by whistling.

2 thoughts on “Silbo Gomero: A Language That Consists Entirely Of Whistling

  1. I am delighted with this article. I was struck by the fact that Silbo Gomero is recognized in the “language” center of the brain by people whistling Silbo. People who preserve national traditions are worthy of respect.

  2. What an amazing write-up with a good video illustration to back up.
    I hope the people of la Gomera are still very much interested in this form of communication.
    To me, the language when understood, can be use to communicate between family members to pass important message to each other without a third-party having to know what is been said.

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