Silbo gomero: the whistled language of the Canary Islands 🎶

silbo gomero, whistled language of the Canary Islands
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Today we dive into the fascinating world of the silbo gomero, the whistled language of the Canary Islands that for centuries has echoed through the valleys and ravines of La Gomera island, in the Canaries, and which allows messages to be exchanged over distances of… up to 5 kilometres! And yet, did you know that until a few years ago it was on the verge of disappearing? Join us to find out more about the history of this Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Origin and history: from the Aborigines to the present day 🌋

The silbo gomero has deep roots in the history of the island of La Gomera. It is believed to have been brought to the island by the first inhabitants (the Gomeros, part of the aboriginal peoples of the Canary Islands) of North African origin, more than a thousand years ago. This method of communication was developed as a way of overcoming the difficulties presented by the island’s rugged terrain, with high cliffs and deep valleys, allowing its inhabitants to communicate over long distances without needing to travel.

This form of communication lasted after the Spanish conquest, adapting to the Spanish language, and over the centuries the silbo gomero became fully integrated into the daily life of the island’s inhabitants, being used to transmit news, coordinate agricultural and social activities, and even for dating. However, with the arrival of modern technology and the improvement of communication infrastructures, the use of the silbo gomero began to decline.

The danger of extinction and the fight for its conservation 🤫

In the second half of the 20th century, the silbo gomero was in danger of extinction. The young people of the island, attracted by the opportunities offered by the modern world, were abandoning La Gomera and its ancestral culture: many chose to emigrate and left the island, so they stopped using it; and those who stayed, replaced its use by the telephone.

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Moreover, its use was especially widespread among rural people, but between the 1960s and 1980s, agricultural activity was gradually abandoned; and the rising middle class, which negatively associated the use of the silbo with the countryside and rural life, did not feel the need to preserve it.

Fortunately, the importance of this unique cultural heritage was recognised in time, before it was lost forever. It was in the 1990s that educational programmes began to be implemented to teach the silbo gomero in the island’s schools, thus ensuring its transmission to the new generations. This decision was crucial for the survival of the silbo gomero, and marked the beginning of a cultural renaissance.

The silbo gomero in education 👂

Today, the silbo gomero is taught as a compulsory subject in schools on the island of La Gomera, ensuring that children grow up with a knowledge and appreciation of this unique tradition. The teachers, many of whom are expert whistlers, transmit not only the techniques of the silbo, but also its history and cultural relevance. A Silbo Gomero Academy was also created, so that those who wish can continue their training and become professional silbadores (whistlers), and teach to other people in the island.

This introduction of the silbo into the education system has led to an interesting situation among the inhabitants of the island; thus, only those born before 1950, and the younger generations who learnt it at school from 1999 onwards, are able to use the silbo gomero fluently. The former were those who learnt the silbo at home from their elders, before the migrations and before it ceased to be used; and the latter are children and young people who learnt it at school. Between these two groups are the Gomeran people born between 1950 and 1980, who, although they can understand it, do not know how to use the silbo, since in their time it had ceased to be used and even had negative connotations, as we explained before.

International recognition: UNESCO 📜

In 2009, the silbo gomero was included in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, a recognition that has contributed significantly to its preservation and promotion. This status has not only protected the silbo gomero, but has also brought international attention to it, putting the island of La Gomera on the tourist and cultural map of the world. In fact, although there are other whistled languages, the silbo gomero is one of the most studied by experts.

Main characteristics of the silbo gomero 🗣️

Silbo gomero is a fascinating language that imitates Spanish in its structure, but is expressed through whistles instead of words. It uses two whistles to represent two vowels (sharp and low-pitched) and four consonants (low-continuous, low-interrupted, sharp-continuous and sharp-interrupted), allowing whistlers to convey any message in Spanish with just these sounds, thanks to the context and the precise choice of words to avoid ambiguities.

What makes the silbo gomero so special is its ability to travel long distances, up to 5 kilometres, overcoming the geographical barriers of the island. This makes it an extremely effective means of communication in the rugged terrain of La Gomera, even with today’s technological advances.

La Gomera island

Present and future of the silbo gomero 📈

With the support of education and international recognition, the silbo gomero is undergoing a true revitalisation. In fact, the silbo gomero is still very much alive in the rural areas of La Gomera, where it is an oral tradition that continues to be passed down from generation to generation without the negative connotations it had before, and continues to be a very useful communication tool used on a daily basis in the villages of the island.

In addition to its presence in schools, efforts are being made to promote it not only among the island’s residents but also among visitors to La Gomera, through workshops, demonstrations and festivals. Tourists visiting the island of La Gomera have the unique opportunity to experience this whistled language first hand, learning about its history, watching demonstrations, and even trying to whistle a few words themselves.

La Gomera island: a unique tourist destination in the Canary Islands 🏝️

Although it is undoubtedly one of its great cultural heritages, the island of La Gomera offers much more than its whistled language; it is a destination brimming with natural beauty, cultural traditions and a rich history. From its breathtaking landscapes and hiking trails, to its delicious gastronomy and the warmth of its people, La Gomera is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Visiting La Gomera is not only an opportunity to experience the silbo gomero, but also to immerse yourself in a way of life that has remained authentic and true to its roots over the centuries.

The “silbo gomero”, a living treasure 📢

The silbo gomero is much more than a whistled language; it is a symbol of identity, a connection with the past and a living legacy that has been passed down from generation to generation. Thanks to the efforts to preserve it, today we can get to know and experience this unique cultural heritage.

We invite all lovers of culture, history and adventure to visit La Gomera island, to immerse themselves in the rich tradition of the silbo gomero, the whistled language of the Canary Islands, and to discover for themselves the incomparable charm of this Canarian jewel. See you in La Gomera!! 🏞️🎵

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