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The narrow valleys of La Gomera.

Silbo Gomero (Spanish for 'Gomeran Whistle'), also known as "El Silbo", is a whistled language spoken by inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys (gullies) that radiate through the island [1]. A speaker of Silbo Gomero is sometimes referred to in Spanish as "un 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[2]. Invented by the original inhabitants of the island, the Guanches, and "spoken" also on el Hierro, Tenerife, and Gran Canaria, Silbo was adapted to Spanish by the last Guanches and adopted by the Spanish 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[3]. 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[3].


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 [4].

Ramón Trujillo of the University of La Laguna published his book "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[5][6]. 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. 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 [7]. [8]

Trujillo's 2005 collaboration with Gomeran whistler Isidro Ortiz and others ("EL SILBO GOMERO Materiales didácticos" - qv. pdf link below) revises his earlier assertions to conclusively state that 4 vowels are indeed perceived (qv. pg 63 ref. cit.)[9], and describes in detail the areas of divergence between his empirical data and Classe’s phonetic hypotheses. 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 distiguishing different whistled sounds.[10]

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[11]. 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.


  1. ^ Busnel, R.G.; Classe, A. (1976), Whistled Languages, Springer-Verlag, ISBN 0-387-07713-8  
  2. ^ Busnel, Classe, pp 9-10
  3. ^ a b Busnel, Classe, p 8
  4. ^ Busnel, Classe, p54 ff
  5. ^ Trujillo, R. (1978), EL SILBO GOMERO: análisis lingüístico, Santa Cruz de Tenerife: I. Canaria: Editiorial Interinsular Canaria, ISBN 84-85543-03-3  
  6. ^ Trujillo, R. (1990), The Gomeran Whistle: Linguistic Analysis (English translation: J.Brent), Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Library of Congress, Washington, DC (published online).  
  7. ^ Meyer, J. (2005). Description typologique et intelligibilité des langues sifflées: approche linguistique et bioacoustique. Ph.D thesis. Université Lyon 2..  
  8. ^ 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.  
  9. ^ 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 ISBN 84-689-2610-8  
  10. ^ Rialland, A. (2005). "Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages". Phonology 22 (2): 237–271. doi:10.1017/S0952675705000552.  
  11. ^ 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.  

Other sources

  • Batista, J.J. and M. Morera, eds., (2007) El Silbo Gomero : 125 años de estudios lingüísticos y etnográficos. Islas Canarias : Academía Canaria de la Lengua.
  • Díaz Reyes, D. (2008). El lenguaje silbado en la Isla de El Hierro. Excmo. Cabildo Insular de El Hierro. Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
  • Meyer, J., Meunier, F., Dentel, L. (2007) Identification of natural whistled vowels by non whistlers. Proceedings of Interspeech 2007.
  • Rialland, A. (2003) A New Perspective on Silbo Gomero. Proceedings of the 15th International Conference of Phonetic Sciences, Barcelona.

External links



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