Silbo Gomero

Silbo Gomero (Spanish: silbo gomero [ˈsilβo ɣoˈmeɾo], 'Gomeran whistle'), also known as el silbo ('the whistle'), is a whistled register of Spanish used by inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate through the island. It enables messages to be exchanged over a distance of up to 5 kilometres.[1] Due to this loud nature, Silbo Gomero is generally used in circumstances of public communication. Messages conveyed could range from being an event invitation to being public information advisories.[2] A speaker of Silbo Gomero is sometimes referred to in Spanish as a silbador ('whistler'). Silbo Gomero is a transposition of Spanish from speech to whistling. This oral phoneme-whistled phoneme substitution emulates Spanish phonology through a reduced set of whistled phonemes.[3] It was declared as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.[4]


The narrow valleys of La Gomera.

Little is known of the original Guanche language or the languages of the Canaries, but it is assumed that their phonological system must have been simple enough to allow an efficient whistled language.[5] Used by the island's original inhabitants, the Guanches, the whistled language existed before the arrival of Spanish settlers and was also spoken on el Hierro, Tenerife, and Gran Canaria. Silbo was adapted to Spanish during the Spanish settlement in the 16th century and was widely spoken throughout the period into the following 17th century.[6] In 1976 Silbo barely remained on el Hierro, where it had flourished at the end of the 19th century.[7]

Use of the language declined in the 1950s, one factor being the economic decline, which forced many speakers to move away to seek better jobs to cope financially.[6][8] Technological developments such as the telephone played a part in reducing the practicality and usage of the language. The language's earlier survival hadbeen due to its role in overcoming distance and terrain, in addition to the ease with which it is learned by native speakers.[7] Most significantly, in the period from the 1960s to 1980s, many people had turned away from agriculture and so many middle class families did not want their children to speak the language as it was negatively associated with the rural peasants.

In the late 1990s, language revitalization efforts began and initiatives from within the community started. By 1999, the revitalization of Silbo Gomero was furthered by education policies and other legislative measures. It now has official protection as an example of intangible cultural heritage.


Many people in La Gomera speak Silbo Gomero, but their expression of the language deviates in minor ways which shows the different origins of the speaker. As reported in a 2009 UNESCO report, all the people living in La Gomera understand the language, but only those born before 1950 and the younger generations who attended school since 1999 can speak the language.[9] Those born before 1950 were taught the language by their elders in their homes, and those who have attended or are attending school since 1999 were taught the language formally in school. Those born between 1950 and 1980 understand the language but are unable to speak it, as the language was hardly used and negatively viewed during their time of language acquisition.[9]


When this medium of communication was endangered in the late 20th century, revitalization efforts were generated at both community level and governmental level. A combination of initiatives from the La Gomeran community and policies implemented by the authorities saw Silbo Gomero being revitalized and maintained as a cultural asset. These revitalization efforts were well-documented by UNESCO as part of the proceedings for the selection of the 2009 Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.[9]

Community initiatives

In a bid to preserve Silbo Gomero for the island’s youth, expert whistlers sought to obtain authorization, which enabled them to teach the language on a free and voluntary basis at a dedicated centre. This initiative by the senior islanders garnered encouraging response, with parent-teacher associations extending it to all schools. The first of many revitalization measures was thus adopted at the grassroots level, not by public or private entities, which reflected the language attitude of locals towards Silbo Gomero. Education policies which were implemented later were inspired as such - revitalization began at the grassroots and escalated to the highest government bodies.

Government policies

On 26 June 1997,[9] the Parliament of the Canary Islands approved a motion calling on the government to include Silbo Gomero as part of school curriculum. Silbo Gomero then became a mandatory subject in primary and secondary education, as of July 1999. The provincial government was supportive in its implementation of education policy and also the establishment of a formalized Silbo Gomero curriculum through the publication of El Silbo Gomero, Materiales didácticos (Educational Materials on the Silbo Gomero).

In addition to the compulsory learning of Silbo Gomero at the primary and secondary level, an Island School of Silbo Gomero was established for post-secondary students who wish to continue to train in Silbo Gomero until they become accredited professional instructors. Students of the Island School work to become capable of teaching Silbo Gomero to not only their fellow citizens, but also tourists who visit La Gomera. This facilitates the sustainability of the revitalization and also works towards language maintenance.

Thereafter, the Ministry of Education, Universities, Culture and Sport of the Canary Islands developed a staff training plan in order to ensure that the elderly expert whistlers can be replaced in the near future by qualified professional teachers with relevant diplomas. This comprised training courses on proficiency in and teaching of Silbo Gomero. The training plan was launched in 2007, with the participation of 18 teachers.[9]

Besides the implementation of education policies, the authorities also sought to strengthen the corpus of Silbo Gomero by developing a project to digitize all recorded audio material. Local, national and worldwide distribution of documentaries on Silbo Gomero were also made. The government also raised the status of Silbo Gomero by selecting the whistled language of La Gomera via the National Historical Heritage Council to represent Spain in the nominations for inclusion on the 2009 Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Cultural heritage

Members of the Gomeran community treasure Silbo Gomero as part of the island’s identity and use the whistled language in traditional rituals and festivities on the island. One of these includes "bajadas", which are processions dedicated to the Virgin or the patron saints of the community. On 15 March 1999,[9] Silbo Gomero was declared as part of the historical ethnographic heritage of the Canary Islands. The annual celebration of “School Encounters with Silbo Gomero” was also inaugurated in La Gomera. In 2005, the monument to Silbo Gomero was inducted in Garajonay National Park.


Silbo Gomero demonstration at a restaurant in La Gomera.

Silbo Gomero is not only used between Gomerans; visitors to the island have the opportunity to be exposed to the whistled language too, in restaurants which provide whistling demonstrations for tourists. Minister of Tourism of La Gomera, Fernando Mendez, asserted that whistling is essential to the tourism industry of La Gomera.[10]


A dialogue in Silbo Gomero

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The Silbo Gomero Language has only 2 vowels and 4 consonants, according to the official nomination document submitted during the UNESCO convention.[9] The language is a whistled form of a dialect of Spanish.[11] Silbo replaces each vowel or consonant with a whistling sound. Whistles are distinguished according to pitch and continuity. As with other whistled forms of non-tonal languages, Silbo works by retaining approximately the articulation of ordinary speech, so "the timbre variations of speech appear in the guise of pitch variations" (Busnel and Classe: v).

Silbo Gomero is a complex language to learn, with its whistling techniques requiring physical precision, and a strength of the body parts used in mechanism of the language, that can only be acquired with practice. Silbo Gomero uses the tongue, lips and hands of the users, differing greatly from conventional language, which uses the mouth cavity to blend and contrast several acoustic frequencies. The whistling mechanism, in contrast, is limited to only emitting a single basic pitch between 1,000 and 3,000 hertz. The physical precision comes in the skill of the whistler being able to vary the frequencies at different speeds and to start and stop the production of the sound waves. This technique is handed down within La Gomera’s community, with unchanged teaching methods that date back to the late nineteenth century.[9] The same pitch can represent many sounds, so it has much fewer phonemes than Spanish. This means that communication in Silbo can be ambiguous at times. Context and appropriate choice of words are thus important for effective communication.[12]


The vowels of Silbo Gomero are described roughly as sustained lines of high and low frequency that are distinct from each other.

Pitch General representation Vowels of the spoken language represented
High frequency /i/ /i/ and /e/
Low frequency /a/ /a/, /o/, /u/

The high frequency /i/ vowel represents the /i/, /e/ vowels of the spoken language being whistled, while the low frequency whistle of the dark /a/ vowel represents the vowels /a/, /o/, /u/. It is said that it is not possible to produce any vowels with intermediary frequencies as the whistling mechanism does not have the same functions that the vocal mechanism possess.[9] The theory that Silbo Gomero has only two vowels was theorised by Ramón Trujillo of the University of La Laguna in his published book "EL SILBO GOMERO análisis lingüístico" in 1978. His work, containing almost a hundred spectrograms, concludes in a theory that there are only two vowels and four consonants in the Silbo Gomero language.[13][14] In Trujillo's work Silbo's vowels are given one quality, that of pitch, being either high or low. However, in a more recent study, the work of Julien Meyer (2005 - in French only (pg 100), 2008) gives a statistical analysis of the vowels of Silbo showing that there are 4 vowels statistically distinguished in production and that they are also perceived so.[15][16] Also in 2005, Annie Rialland of the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle published an acoustic and phonological analysis of Silbo based on new materials, showing that, not only gliding tones, but also intensity modulation plays a role in distinguishing different whistled sounds.[17]

Trujillo's 2005 collaboration with Gomeran whistler Isidro Ortiz and others ("EL SILBO GOMERO Materiales didácticos" - q.v. pdf link below) revises his earlier assertions to state that 4 vowels are indeed perceived (q.v. pg 63 ref. cit.),[18] and describes in detail the areas of divergence between his empirical data and Classe’s phonetic hypotheses. Despite Trujillo's 2005 work acknowledging the existence of 4 vowels, his 2006 bilingual work ("El Silbo Gomero. Nuevo estudio fonológico") inexplicably reiterates his 1978 two-vowel theory. Trujillo's 2006 work directly addresses many of Rialland's conclusions, but it seems that at the time of that writing he was unaware of Meyer's work.

Meyer suggests that there are 4 vowel classes of /i/, /e/, /a/, /u, o/. However Meyer goes on to say that there are 5 perceived vowels with significant overlap. Rialland (2005) and Trujillo (1978) both agree that the harmonic of the whistle matches the second formant of the spoken vowels. Spoken /a/'s F2 and whistled /a/'s H1 match in their frequency (1480 Hz). However, there is a disconnect in harmonics and formants near the frequency basement. Spoken speech has a wide range of F2 frequencies (790 Hz to 2300 Hz), whistles are limited to 1200 Hz to 2400 Hz. Vowels are therefore shifted upwards at the lower end (maintaining 1480 Hz as /a/) increasing confusion between /o/ (spoken F2 freq 890 Hz, whistled <1300 Hz) and /u/ (spoken freq 790 Hz, Whistled <<1300 Hz). In whistling the frequency basement must be raised to the minimum whistle harmonic of 1000 Hz reducing frequency spacing in the vowels, which increases misidentification in the lower vowels.


Consonants in Silbo Gomero are modifications of the vowel-based “melody line” or “vocal line”. They may be rising or falling or can also be modified by being broken, continuous or occlusive. The four main consonants are as follows:[9]

Pitch General representation Consonants of the spoken language represented
continuous high pitch y /l/, /ʎ/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɾ/, /r/, /d/ and /j/
broken high pitch ch /t͡ʃ/, /t/, /s/
continuous low pitch g /g/, /b/, /m/, /j/ and /h/
broken low pitch k /k/ and /p/

The documentation on the official Silbo Gomero page on the UNESCO website is in line with Trujillo’s 1978 study. Trujillo (1978) suggested that the consonants are either rises or dips in the "melody line" which can be broken or continuous. Further investigation by Meyer, and by Rialland suggest that vowels are stripped to their inherent class of sound which is communicated in the whistle in these ways: voice (/k/ vs /a/) is transmitted by the whistled feature [-continuity]. A silent pause in the whistle communicates [+voice] (/a/), while a [+continuous] consonant gives the quality [-voice] (/k/). Placement of the consonant (dental, palatal, fricative) is transmitted in whistle by the loci, the sharpness or speed, of the formant transitions between vowels. Consonant classes are simplified into four classes. Extra high loci (near vertical formant loci) denotes affricates and stridents, rising loci denotes alveolar, medial (loci just above the vowel formant) denotes palatal, and falling (low loci) denotes pharyngeal, labial, and fricative. This gives 8 whistled consonants, but including tone gradual decay (with intensity falling off) as a feature on continuous and interrupted sounds gives 10 consonants. In these situations gradual decay is given [+voice], and continuous is given [+liquid].[15][17]

The representation of /s/ is actually treated as a broken high pitch when whistled in Silbo. However, in the spoken language, /s/ is a continuous high pitch consonant. There are two reasons for this anomaly. Firstly, in functional terms, the /s/ consonant is high in frequency, thus being extremely useful. Secondly, as the continuous high-pitched consonant of Silbo already represents many other consonants of the spoken language (/l/, /ʎ/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɾ/, /r/, /d/ and /ʝ/), it would be very confusing to add on to the extensive list. Thus, as the broken high-pitched consonant does not fully represent /t͡ʃ/ and /t/, it can be used to represent the frequently used /s/ consonant.[9]

Cognitive features

Studies have shown that Silbo Gomero was understood by the brain in the same way as a spoken language was. Studies carried out by Manuel Carreiras of the University of La Laguna and David Corina of the University of Washington published research on Silbo in 2004 and 2005. Their study involved two participant groups of Spanish speakers. One group of Spanish speakers “spoke” Silbo, while the other group did not. Results obtained from monitoring the participant’s brain activity by functional magnetic resonance imaging have shown that while non-speakers of Silbo merely processed Silbo as whistling, speakers of Silbo processed the whistling sounds in the same linguistic centers of the brain that processed Spanish sentences.[19]


Film maker and photographer Francesca Phillips wrote and directed a documentary on the usage of Silbo Gomero in La Gomera titled “Written in the Wind” (2009) and this 26min film won Best Short Documentary in Anthropology at The World Mountain Documentary Festival held in Qinghai, China in 2010.[20]

French singer Féloche dedicated a song to this traditional singing called Silbo.


  1. Busnel, R.G.; Classe, A. (1976). "Whistled Languages". Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0-387-07713-8.
  2. Racoma, Bernadine (11 February 2014). "Silbo Gomero: The Whistled Language". Retrieved 10 October 2014.
  3. Trujillo, R. (1990). "The Gomeran Whistle: Linguistic Analysis (English translation: J.Brent)". Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Library of Congress, Washington, DC (published online).
  5. Busnel, Classe, pp 9-10
  6. 1 2 "The language made up entirely of WHISTLES". Daily Mail Online. 14 July 2013. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  7. 1 2 Busnel, Classe, p 8
  8. "Silbo Gomero: A whistling language revived". BBC News. 11 January 2013. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 "Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero". Fourth Session of the Intergovernmental Committee 2009 (4.COM). Retrieved 10 October 2014.
  10. "Silbo Gomero: A whistling language revived". BBC News. 11 January 2013. Retrieved 11 January 2013.
  11. Busnel, Classe, p54 ff
  12. Pereira, Diana (18 July 2013). "Silbo Gomero, a language of whistles". Retrieved 10 October 2014.
  13. Trujillo, R. (1978). "EL SILBO GOMERO: análisis lingüístico". Santa Cruz de Tenerife: I. Canaria: Editiorial Interinsular Canaria. ISBN 84-85543-03-3.
  14. Trujillo, R. (1990). "The Gomeran Whistle: Linguistic Analysis (English translation: J.Brent)". Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Library of Congress, Washington, DC (published online).
  15. 1 2 Meyer, J. (2005). "Description typologique et intelligibilité des langues sifflées: approche linguistique et bioacoustique". Ph.D thesis. Université Lyon 2.
  16. Meyer, J. (2008). "Typology and acoustic strategies of whistled languages: Phonetic comparison and perceptual cues of whistled vowels". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 38 (1): 69–94.
  17. 1 2 Rialland, A. (2005). "Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages". Phonology. 22 (2): 237–271. doi:10.1017/S0952675705000552.
  18. Trujillo, R.; et al. (2005). "EL SILBO GOMERO. Materiales didácticos". Canary Islands: Consejería De Educación, Cultura y Deportes Del Gobierno De Canarias - Dirección General De Ordenación e Innovación Educativa. ISBN 84-689-2610-8.
  19. Carreiras M, Lopez J, Rivero F, Corina D (2005). "Linguistic perception: neural processing of a whistled language". Nature. 433 (7021): 31–32. doi:10.1038/433031a. PMID 15635400.
  20. "The Francesca Phillips Written in the Wind". Francesca Phillips. 2010. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/28/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.