El Silbo Gomero

Published 30th January 2013
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When we think of the Canary Islands, the ones which usually spring to mind are Tenerife, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria and Fuertaventura, but there are in fact seven major islands which make up the Canaries – Tenerife, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, Fuertaventura, El Hierro, La Gomera and La Palma, and another six smaller islands – La Graciosa, Alegranza, Isla de Lobos, Montaña Clara, Roque del Este and Roque del Oeste.

Each of the islands have their own qualities which make them different from the rest, but one of the most prominent is La Gomera, the second smallest of the main islands, located west of Tenerife. The island has its own very unique culture which combines a distinctive local wine, rustic crafts, traditional cuisine, folklore singing and dancing, and El Silbo Gomero.

El Silbo Gomero is a whistled language which inhabitants of the island have used throughout their history to communicate. El Silbo Gomero literally translates as The Gomera Whistle, and whilst the official language of La Gomera is Spanish, El Silbo Gomero has co-existed through time as an alternative form of communication.

How are words and sentences formed using El Silbo Gomero?

El Silbo Gomero has four consonant and two vowel sounds, each of which corresponds to a Castilian sound:

l = l

A = a, o, u

CH = t

K = p, k

Y = d, n, ñ, l, y, r, rr

G = b, f, m, g, j

Only essential information which is required to understand a message is used when communicating in this whistled language , which means that messages tend to be to the point and accurate. Conversations will usually begin with a context to avoid any ambiguity in the meaning of the messages which follow.

Why was El Silbo Gomero used on this particular island?

If you ever visit the island of La Gomera you will immediately understand why a whistled language was developed. The landscape of La Gomera is made up of large volcanic rocks, cliffs and forests, and is so jagged that to walk six miles from one village to another will take you hours as you will have to ascend and descend cliffs all the way. For this reason you can see the benefit of being able to stand at the top of a cliff and send a message which will be received instantly.

The use of El Silbo Gomero in the 21st Century

Due to improved methods of transport and new technology for sending messages, few people use El Silbo Gomero as a form of communication nowadays. It is now used more as a tourist attraction and can be heard mainly in restaurants, particularly in the port of San Sebastián de La Gomera where locals are entertaining tourists.

In the late 20th century, El Silbo Gomero was on the verge of extinction, so in plans to revitalise the language, government departments put together initiatives including creation of a legal framework, and inclusion of El Silbo Gomero in compulsory education.

It’s a fascinating language and one of the most studied of all whistled languages in the world. You can find out more about El Silbo Gomero by visiting La Gomera’s tourist site.

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