Silbo gomero’ is a language with thousands of years of history. It is the only whistled language to still exist in the world and it has managed to survive by adapting to modern times, although its main purpose, that of sending and receiving messages from several kilometres away, avoiding obstacles like the mountains and cliffs of La Gomera, has remained the same.
For centuries, ‘silbo gomero’ was passed down from generation to generation as another tool for living in the countryside. Luckily, since 1999, it has been taught as a compulsory subject at schools on La Gomera and as an optional subject in the rest of the archipelago, which has allowed it to spread, to the extent that there are now 22,000 people who know how to whistle it correctly.
The ancient origins of ‘silbo’
Invented by the first settlers in the Canary Islands, the guanches, it was also used on other islands in the archipelago, although it has only been preserved on La Gomera
‘Silbo gomero’ is a language that was created to travel long distances. In fact, a whistle can reach much further than a scream. Whistles are, after all, the most intense noise a human can make with their body.
‘Silbo’ is a more public language than most, as it can be heard for kilometres and can’t be directed to just a single person. That means that anyone who knows the language can understand the message, even if it isn’t intended for them.
The evolution of ‘silbo gomero’
This language has survived for thousands of years, since the first settlers, and has lasted so long because it has evolved. ‘Silbo’ originally reproduced the Guanche language, Canary Islands Berber, while it currently reproduces the variant of Spanish spoken in the islands, and it could theoretically reproduce any language on Earth.
As it is the only whistled language in the world that is developed and spoken by many people, ‘silbo gomero’ was declared UNESCO Intangible World Heritage in 2009. Among the reasons for this is its cultural value, as well as the work done by islanders to keep it alive and its usefulness as a communication system.
How does it work?
‘Silbo’ is a language that uses six sounds, two for vowels and four for consonants, to express more than 4,000 words and create an unlimited quantity of messages. Communication tends to be short sentences with as many questions and answers being exchanged as necessary for the message to be clearly understood.
‘Silbo gomero’ is one of the most important components of La Gomera culture, where it is commonplace for there to be whistling exhibitions at traditional festivities, whether religious or not.