Saturday, January 12, 2013

El Silbo - La Gomera's Unique Language

'El Silbo', also known as 'Silbo Gomero', is the ancient and still practised unique other language of La Gomera. The name is derived from the Spanish word for whistling, 'silbar', and it is a language in its own right and not simply a whistled form of Spanish. You can even whistle in almost any other spoken language using El Silbo. It probably evolved to enable communication across the island's ravine-ridden terrain during the approx. 1500 years the original  inhabitants had the island to themselves. El Silbo is not practised on any of the other Canary Islands and somewhat similar whistled communication in the rest of the world is nowhere near as refined, or long forgotten if it ever existed.
El Silbo being whistled  ©
El Silbo consists of vowels and consonants that are whistled involving a technique that uses the fingers of one hand and the tongue to produce different whistling sounds. The intonation is controlled by the tongue, and the cup of the free hand is used to modulate the sound. The resulting communication is that loud that it can travel for a couple of miles across the mountainous terrain, but it sounds amazingly pleasant to the ear even if you stand close to the whistler. Messages and gossip can thus be passed rapidly from valley to valley and right across the island, saving strenuous walks - and there's never a flat battery or a gap in reception to worry about. Mobile phones and modern roads did however lead to a decline in the use of El Silbo and a few years ago the whistling language was made a compulsory subject in the schools of La Gomera to save it from extinction. The move has proven quite popular and even the homework is done without complaint. 
Here's a link to a recent article on El Silbo in the 'BBC News Magazine', complete with video and sound samples:
and here's a short documentary with English subtitles:


Jemma Marshall said...


Sorry for writing this here- I wasn't sure how else to contact you!

I am a film student from York University in England and am currently working on a documentary research project about El Silbo and I stumbled across your page.

I am currently trying to research some silbadors that I may be able to interview but am struggling to find the right people to contact to help me. This isn't helped by the fact that my Spanish is not very good!

I was wondering if you might be able to give me any help?

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.

Many thanks.

Jemma Marshall

Willie said...

Hi Jemma,
you can phone me on 0034-922805603 and I could help you with your project.