The Silbo Gomero is an idiomatic whistled language characteristic of the island of La Gomera and representative of the culture from the Canaries. It is a whistled language that has been used since time immemorial on the island of La Gomera to communicate over long distances.
The Silbo is not a series of pre-established codes that serve to express limited contents, but an articulated, reductive, non-conventional language that allows the exchange of an unlimited range of messages by reproducing the sonorous characteristics of a spoken language through whistles. At present, it reproduces the Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands but it could, in theory, do the same with any other language.
The Silbo is one of the most studied whistling languages and was officially declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. It uses six condensed sounds to communicate: two differentiating whistles replace the five spoken vowels in Spanish, while just four replace the 22 consonants. Whistlers elongate or shorten the sounds to mimic the words.
The whistled language of La Gomera is one of the most original and representative manifestations of the Canary Archipelago and the most vivid tradition that has come down to us from the pre-Hispanic past of these islands. For centuries it has constituted a cohesive element of the inhabitants of the island of Gomera and its integration in the community has been such that, in spite of the different historical events and the numerous sociological transformations, the Silbo Gomero has shown an exceptional capacity of adaptation to all kinds of changes. It has survived as an essential component of the insular culture.
The main function of this language is to allow communication between people who are at a great distance from each other. This requires great power to emit the sound. The most remarkable aspect of the whistling technique is the difficulty involved in reproducing a complete language, which uses all the phonatory resources of the oral cavity and its corresponding sub-cavities, by means of a mechanism -the whistle- that allows frequency variations of the same fundamental tone. This implies a practice that has been developed for centuries; its effectiveness and subtlety are impressive.
On the other hand, the Silbo Gomero is characterized for being, mainly, a social language, suitable for the collective sphere to a much greater extent than for the private one. Although on some occasions it has been used as a secret language -during the conquest, in wars, for smuggling-, the messages emitted by means of the silbo are public because the very nature of this language demands it.
What is transmitted with the whistled language can be heard by people who are not the addressees. In this aspect, the knowledge or ignorance of the Silbo Gomero has contributed to create a greater or lesser sense of belonging to the community, although no one has ever been prevented from learning and practicing it.
The social changes that took place during the last half of the 20th century placed the Silbo Gomero on the verge of extinction, with only a few dozen older people able to practice it. The initiatives of various social agents of the island of La Gomera and of parliamentarians have appealed to the Parliament and the Government of the Canary Islands for concrete legislation to safeguard and revitalize the Silbo Gomero.
These laws – unique in the world in terms of the protection of intangible oral heritage – include the teaching of the whistled language of La Gomera in the Primary and Compulsory Secondary Education plans of all schools on the island. This innovative measure has ensured the survival of the Silbo among the new generations.