Silbo Gomero language

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The Silbo Gomero ("El Silbo" or "Gomeran whistle") is a whistled language spoken by inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate across the deep valleys (barrancos) that radiate through the island (Busnel and Classe 1976: 1). A speaker of Silbo Gomero is sometimes referred to as a "Silbador".

Little is known of the original language or languages of the Canaries, though it is assumed they must have had a simple enough phonological/phonetic system to allow an efficient whistled language (ibid: 9-10). Invented by the original inhabitants of the island, the Guanches, and "spoken" also on el Hierro, Tenerife, and Gran Canaria, Silbo was adapted to Castilians by the last Guanches and adopted by the Castilian settlers in the 16th century and thus survived. In 1976 Silbo barely remained on el Hierro, where it had flourished at the end of the nineteenth century (ibid: 8). When this unique medium of communication was about to die out in the late 20th century, the local government required all Gomeran children to study it in school. The language's survival before that point was due to topography or terrain and the ease with which it is learned by native speakers (ibid: 10-11).

As with other whistled forms of non-tonal languages, the 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). The language is a whistled form of a dialect of Spanish (ibid: 54ff).

Ramón Trujillo of the University of La Laguna published his EL SILBO GOMERO análisis lingüístico in 1978. This work containing almost a hundred spectrograms concludes in a theory that there are only two vowels and four consonants in the Silbo Gomero language. The vowels can be either high or low, and the consonants are either rises or dips in the “melody line” which can be broken or continuous. Such a vision is highly contested by some whistlers of the island of la Gomera. The Ph.D work of Meyer (2005) gives statistical analysis of the vowels of Silbo showing that there are 4 vowels statistically distinguished in production and that they are also perceived so.

Trujillo’s 2005 collaboration describes in detail the areas of divergence between his empirical data and Classe’s phonetic hypotheses. EL SILBO GOMERO Materiales didácticos is the defining work on the subject (as of this writing this book is only available in Spanish – however it is freely available online in its entirety).

Manuel Carreiras of the University of La Laguna and David Corina of the University of Washington published research on Silbo in 2004 and 2005 arguing that Silbo was understood by the brain in much the same way as a spoken language. Their study of speakers of Spanish (some of whom "spoke" Silbo and some of whom did not) showed (by monitoring brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging) 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.


  • Busnel, R.G. and Classe, A. (1976). Whistled Languages. New York: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0-387-07713-8.
  • Carreiras M, Lopez J, Rivero F, Corina D (2005). "Linguistic perception: neural processing of a whistled language". Nature. 433 (7021): 31–32. PMID 15635400.
  • Meyer J. (2005). 'Description typologique et intelligibilité des langues sifflées: approche linguistique et bioacoustique'. Ph.D thesis. Université Lyon 2.
  • 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.
  • Trujillo, R. (1990). The Gomeran Whistle: Linguistic Analysis (English translation: Brent, J.). Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Library of Congress, Washington, DC (unpublished).
  • Trujillo, R. (1978). EL SILBO GOMERO: análisis lingüístico. Santa Cruz de Tenerife: I. Canaria. ISBN 84-85543-03-3.

External links

de:El Silbo eo:Silbo it:Silbo gomero nl:Silbo sv:Silbo Gomero