The Language Made Up Entirely of Whistles

whistleToday I found out about Silbo Gomero, the whistling language.

In Spanish, “Silbo Gomero” means “Gomeran whistling.” It is a language “spoken” on La Gomera in the Canary Islands (which incidentally may have been named after dogs, and certainly wasn’t named after birds) and is made up entirely of whistling sounds.

The language was used by the Guanches—the aboriginal people of the Canary Islands—long before Spanish settlement. It is a whistled form of the original Guanche language, which died out around the 17th century. Not much is known about that spoken language of those people save for a few words recorded in the journals of travellers and a few others that were integrated into the Spanish spoken on the Canary Islands. It is believed that spoken Guanche had a simple phonetic pattern that made it easily adaptable to whistling. The language was whistled across the Canary Islands, popular on Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and El Hiero as well as La Gomera.

It’s likely that the first Guanches were from North Africa and brought the idea of a whistled language with them, as there are several different whistling languages that have been recorded there.  From the time of Guanche settlement, the language evolved into Guanche whistling, and then to silbo.

Today, silbo is a whistled form of Spanish. It was adopted in the 16th century after the last of the Guanches adapted their whistled language to Spanish. The language works by replicating timbre variations in speech. One study showed that silbo is recognized in the “language center” of the brain by silbo whistlers, though regular Spanish speakers who were not silbo whistlers simply recognized it as whistling.

As to why such a version of a language would originally be developed at all, it’s thought that silbo was developed as a form of long distance communication. The island of La Gomera is awash with hills, valleys, and ravines. A whistle can travel up to two miles across such a landscape, and the whistler doesn’t have to expend as much energy as he would by hiking or shouting and, in the latter case, the whistled message is heard further away besides. When La Gomera was largely an agricultural island, crops and herds of animals like sheep would be spread out across the hills, and herders would use the language to communicate with one another across these large distances.

Speaking via whistling still saw widespread use as late as the 1940s and 50s, when another purpose was discovered. If a fire started, the Guardia Civil would make civilians drop what they were doing to help, but the locals wouldn’t get paid for their work, despite the Guardia receiving a payment. So, locals passed a message along by whistling, telling others to hide when the Guardia Civil approached. Because the Guardia Civil didn’t “speak” silbo, it was a sort of “secret” language among the locals and messages could be easily heard from great distances.

Unfortunately, economic hardship around the 1950s put silbo-speaking in the decline, as most of the whistlers were forced to move to find better opportunities. The introduction of roads and the invention of the mobile phone also contributed to the decline, as they made silbo largely unnecessary. By the end of the twentieth century, the whistled language was dying out.

However, as it is an integral part of the island’s history, there was interest in reviving the language to preserve the culture. The call for revival was met with mixed emotions, because many people thought of it as a “peasant” language of little use to them. Despite the protests, every primary school child on La Gomera today is required to learn the whistling language, with it being taught in the island’s schools.

The revival of silbo has other benefits, too. Silbo is one of the few whistling languages that has been studied in-depth, and researchers believe that its simplicity (with only 2-4 vowels and 4 consonants) holds the key to discovering how other languages developed, despite not knowing the exact origin of silbo itself.

You can hear examples of the silbo whistling language here.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Silbo Gomero isn’t the only whistled language still in existence today. There is a town in France, a Greek island, and a town in Turkey that all practice their own whistling languages, among others. The whistle-like language of droids in Star Wars is also worth a mention!
  • Shepherds whistling to their animals is a much more wide-spread practice that can be seen all over the world. While this isn’t an official language, it is a type of whistling communication with animals, even if it isn’t used between people.
  • Most whistling languages exist in places that are mountainous or remote— again, thought to have been originally developed to communicate across large distances, like on La Gomera, without having to do a bunch of hiking.
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