Something that pretty much all humans share is language and it’s quite an odd beast when you think about it. For instance, our mongrel language is built from ancient Celtic, Latin, French, Danish and a whole host of other influences. We have English words derived from Sanskrit, including ‘bandanna’ and ‘dinghy’; some words like ‘jive’ and ‘zombie’ come to us from Africa; and words like ‘alcohol’, ‘guitar’ and ‘jumper’ are of Arabic descent. So English is a sprawling haberdashery of noises, but it’s not the weirdest language by far. That accolade, arguably, goes to Silbo Gomero.
Silbo Gomero or el silbo is a language made entirely of whistles and it’s only used on the small island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. La Gomera is made up of mountains and valleys and the inhabitants’ homes are far apart. At some point in their distant past they found that whistles carried a lot further than spoken words and the whistling language was born.
In the past the language was also “spoken” on el Hierro, Tenerife, and Gran Canaria but it has long since died out on those islands. Only on La Gomera is it still encouraged and taught in schools.
The origin of the language is unclear but probably came from the African mainland (unless they learned it from R2-D2 or the Clangers?). When the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century Silbo Gomero was adopted by the Spaniards and is now a kind of whistled version of Spanish apparently.
According to some in-depth linguistic analysis there’s only actually about four vowels and four consonants in the Silbo Gomero language. The fact that they can get any kind of meaningful words and sentences out of that is pretty incredible. It’s not just the individual whistling sounds that have meaning, the whistle’s intensity and the sliding between notes also give the listener information.
The language is used less than it was in the 1940s and 50s when nearly everyone used it. An old-timer from one village said “In the old days, when the mountain caught fire, something that happens quite frequently in the island, the Guardia Civil came to pick us up… no matter what we were doing, they put us in a truck and drove us to put out the fire… So, to avoid them, we passed a message between us whistling: ‘You have to hide, the Guardia Civil is coming!’ And because they didn’t whistle, they didn’t understand what we were saying and couldn’t find us”.
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