Whistle Language?

Alkistis Fleischer fleischa at georgetown.edu
Wed Nov 19 00:23:09 UTC 2003


This is for real; the web site of the La Gomera tourism office includes some information on El Silbo (see below).


El Silbo

En una isla pequeña y de relieve muy accidentado como La Gomera, las distancias se medían en el pasado por el tiempo y esfuerzo invertido en recorrer los senderos, y no por el número de Km. existente entre dos lugares, que nunca es elevado. El desplazamiento de una orilla a otra de un valle o barranco, descendiendo por una ladera para cruzar por el fondo y ascender por la otra, podía suponer varias horas para el caminante, aunque el recorrido apenas sumase algunos centenares de metros. En este ámbito geográfico, el silbo gomero es un medio de comunicación especial, que permite enviar mensajes sencillos de un lugar a otro, a condición de que llegue el sonido. Esta curiosa forma de comunicación tiene origen prehispánico y no constituye una lengua en el sentido técnico de la palabra, sino una modalidad de habla que deletrea las sílabas mediante el silbo, con la ayuda de las dedos introducidos en la boca- Al desaparecer la sociedad rural que utilizaba este lenguaje e introducirse otros medios de comunicación como el teléfono, el silbo gomero apenas se utiliza fuera de las exhibiciones o demostraciones, por lo que quedan cada vez menos personas que saben usarlo. 

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Francis M Hult" <fmhult at dolphin.upenn.edu>
To: <lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu>
Sent: Monday, November 17, 2003 10:18 PM
Subject: Whistle Language?

Does anyone know more about this?  Is it for real? If so, any ideas on where to 
look for research about it?



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 whistles. 

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 schoolchildren study it up to age 14. 

Silbo ¡ª the word comes from Spanish verb silbar, meaning to whistle ¡ª 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 

"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 neighbors. 

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

"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 from the 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 ¡ª enough to teach the 
basics, said Eugenio Darias, a Silbo teacher and director of the island's Silbo 

"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 ¡ª sorry, whistling ¡ª 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 La Gomera. 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 (news - web sites) 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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