Whistling Your Language

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Nov 17 18:53:09 UTC 2003

Near-Extinct 'Whistling Language' Returns

 By SARAH ANDREWS, Associated Press Writer

SAN SEBASTIAN, Canary Islands - Juan Cabello takes pride in not using a
cell phone or the Internet to communicate. Instead, he puckers up and

Cabello is a "silbador," until recently a dying breed on tiny, mountainous
La Gomera, one of Spain's Canary Islands off West Africa. Like his father
and grandfather before him,Cabello, 50, knows "Silbo Gomero," a language
that's whistled, not spoken, and can be heard more than two miles away.

This chirpy brand of chatter is thought to have come over with early
African settlers 2,500 years ago. Now,educators are working hard to save it
from extinction by making school children study it up to age 14.

Silbo â€" the word comes from Spanish verb silbar, meaning to whistle â€"
features four "vowels" and four "consonants" that can be strung together to
form more than 4,000 words. It sounds just like bird conversation and
Cabello says it has plenty of uses.

"I use it for everything: to call to my wife, to tell my kids something, to
find a friend if we get lost in a crowd," Cabello said.

In fact, he makes a living off Silbo, performing daily exhibitions at a
restaurant on this island of 147 square miles and 19,000 people.

A snatch of dialogue in Silbo is posted at
http://www.agulo.net/silbo/silbo.mp3 and translates as follows:

"Hey, Servando!"


"Look, go tell Julio to bring the castanets."

"OK. Hey, Julio!"


"Lili says you should go get the kids and have them bring the castanets for
the party."

"OK, OK, OK."

Silbo was once used throughout the hilly terrain of La Gomera as an
ingenious way of communicating over long distances. A strong whistle saved
peasants from trekking over hill and dale to send messages or news to

Then came the phone, and it's hard to know how many people use Silbo these

"A lot of people think they do, but there is a very small group who can
truly communicate through Silbo and understand Silbo," said Manuel
Carreiras, a psychology professor fromthe island of Tenerife. He
specializes in how the brain processes language and has studied Silbo.

Since 1999, Silbo has been a required language in La Gomera's elementary
schools. Some 3,000 students are studying it 25 minutes a week â€" enough
to teach the basics, said Eugenio Darias, a Silbo teacher and director of
the island's Silbo program.

"There are few really good silbadores so far, but lots of students are
learning to use it and understand it," he said. "We've been very pleased."

But almost as important as speaking â€" sorry, whistling â€" Silbo is
studying where it came from, and little is known.

"Silbo is the most important pre-Hispanic cultural heritage we have," said
Moises Plasencia, the director of the Canary government's historical
heritage department.

It might seem appropriate for a language that sounds like birdsong to exist
in the Canary Islands, but scholarly theories as to how the archipelago got
its name make no mention of whistling.

Little is known about Silbo's origins, but an important step toward
recovering the language was the First International Congress of Whistled
Languages, held in April in LaGomera. The congress, which will be repeated
in 2005, brought together experts on various whistled languages.

Silbo-like whistling has been found in pockets of Greece, Turkey, China and
Mexico, but none is as developed as Silbo Gomero, Plasencia said.

One study is looking for vestiges of Silbo in Venezuela, Cuba and Texas,
all places to which Gomerans have historically emigrated during hard
economic times.

Now, Plasencia is heading an effort to have UNESCO declare it an
"intangible cultural heritage" and support efforts to save it. "Silbo is so
unique and has many values: historical, linguistic, anthropological and
aesthetic. It fits perfectly with UNESCO's requirements," he said.

Besides, says Cabello, it's good for just about anything except for
romance: "Everyone on the island would hear what you're saying!"

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