19th May 2024

Silbo Gomero: The whistling language

Silbo Gomero

Silbo Gomero

The inhabitants of La Gomera, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, communicate in a very unique manner: using whistles. The language, Silbo Gomero, is unique to the island.

La Gomera is a volcanic island, which means most of its land is a result of volcanic eruptions. The outflow of lava resulted in deep and narrow valleys running from the centre towards the coast in all directions. Since the villages and houses were mostly scattered across the valleys, whistling became an easier way of communicating. Messages were conveyed and perceived according to the rise and fall of tone in the whistles. What makes the language fascinating is how it prefers sounds to actual words!

The origin of Silbo Gomero is not clearly known. However, it is said the language has African roots, since most of the native African languages used clicks and whistles. Silbo Gomero became the language of the natives of the island, the Guanches. Later, with time, people from mainland Spain started settling in the island. Gradually, the language started adapting itself to Spanish, and became popular by the first half of the twentieth century.

The need for money resulted in the natives migrating to more prosperous areas like Venezuela and Tenerife. Telephones and mobile phones reduced their need to whistle. Also, it came to be negatively associated with the people of the lower class, and came to be shunned by the middle and upper-class people, leading to its near-extinction during the late 1900s.

Recently, La Gomeran people took to reviving the language by teaching it to children and preserving it as a cultural treasure. Silbo Gomero was declared as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO in the year 2009.

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