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The Silbo Gomero Language

By Yana Schottenstein

Silbo Gomero is a way of communicating across long distances using whistles rather than words. It is used in the Canary Islands, primarily on the island of La Gomera, which is full of hills and ravines that can make communication and transportation across long distances difficult. Shouting was inefficient because it could not travel very far, and the words would get lost as they traveled. The nature of whistling, on the other hand, as it is used in Silbo Gomero, allows it to travel much further than shouting and to maintain the nature of its message.

Silbo was brought to the Canary Islands by settlers from the northern part of the African continent and was used by the Guanches, the natives of the Canary Islands, for centuries. Silbo Gomero combined with Spanish around the 1500s after Spanish settlement. The language was used during Spanish occupation to quickly signal others of Silbo was used widely on La Gomera through the 1950s. As the language merged with Spanish, it began to mimic its syllables. Silbo Gomera sounds very similar to Spanish if the words were taken out, but the syllables remained the same.

In the 1950s, the language was often used to avoid the Guardia Civil, which would enlist anyone to help put out the frequent fires on the island. The people of the island would whistle when they saw them approaching, signaling everyone to hide. Unfortunately, the economic hardships of the 1950s caused many users of Silbo Gomero to leave La Gomera to find work. Additionally, new roads and better methods of communication lessened the need to use whistling to communicate to others from a distance. In other words, the use of this ancient communication technique was fading fast.

Today, the whistling language still has its uses among the citizens of La Gomera. The hills and ravines can lead to spotty phone service, so Silbo Gomero can still be used for long-distance communication. The language is also useful in case of emergencies because it can get peoples’ attention from far away. In fact, schools on La Gomera teach Silbo Gomero as part of their curriculums in addition to Spanish due to action by the government in 1999. UNESCO also recognized the language as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity back in 2009.

Examples of Silbo Gomero

About the writer

Yana Schottenstein, the founder of Access 2 Interpreters, contributed content to this article. Yana is a recipient of the International Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and is dedicated to providing equal opportunity and access to services for non-English speaking communities. Access 2 Interpreters is a leading translation and interpretation company in Columbus.

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