Silbo Gomero (a.k.a. How to Communicate Over 2 Miles)


I love quirky things. Quirky foods, quirky hats, and quirky languages. Quirky quirky quirk quirk (and now I’ve hit semantic satiation: the point at which the word loses all meaning!)

From an outsiders point of view, Silbo Gomero is just one of those quirky things that also just happens to form a complete language. I remember hearing about it long ago but I was then reminded by this article on BBC News earlier today.

Silbo Gomero – used on La Gomera, one of the smallest of the Canary Islands – is a language based on whistling.


Not sure if whistling, or making a camp objection to a statement…

More specifically, a whistled that is emitted from a mouth with a finger tucked into it. This forms an aperture for air to escape, that can be modified in the mouth through articulation (just like you do when you speak your native language – consider how much your entire mouth moves when you speak!), creating a set of quiet to loud, differently toned whistles.

While there are other whistling languages out there, this one uses Spanish as a base. In fact, it uses the phonetics of spoken Spanish and adapts them into whistled tones. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to transcribe a whistle, so I recommend having a look at the BBC link as it provides some introductory phrases and their Silbo Gomero equivalents.

The languages was used to aid communication over large distances when technology couldn’t do that for us. Those who have used the language for decades have mastered the language to an extent that they can whistle for up to 2 miles! By the looks of the layout of the island, there are many mountains and hills, so I could imagine it being interesting acoustically, especially when trying to reflect and deflect sound to another person based so far away that they’re effectively a dot.

The language is taught in all schools on the island, and I think that’s superb. So technology may reduce the need for it, but it’s a huge part of the heritage and culture of the island, and it would be such a shame if it were lost. In larger lands, governments occasionally intervene to help safeguard a language, such as the Welsh Language Act of 1993, but sometimes languages are lost either due to an ageing community, government influence, or cultural changes/stigma (for more on language loss, have a mooch around this article).

What’s nice about Silbo Gomero is that this protection and evolution of the language seems community driven; something you don’t see that often nowadays. I hope that it long continues, even if everyone has access to (a)synchronous communication technology.


Remember: language preservation will only succeed if both of the translations mean the SAME THING. I hope that any Welsh speakers get a laugh out of this picture!


2 thoughts on “Silbo Gomero (a.k.a. How to Communicate Over 2 Miles)

    • lukeyroo

      I can think of three responses to that. Perhaps none are correct, but I’ll base this on my linguistic knowledge (plus it’s a good brain workout for 9am!):

      1 – Write Spanish with added ‘tones.’ Silbo Gomero is the “whistled equivalent” of Spanish, so I’m thinking that you could write the sentence out in Spanish (similar to ‘furigana’ in Japanese or ‘pronunciation guides’ in Mandarin/Cantonese/any language that doesn’t use Latin characters!) with added accents above letters to indicate high, low, rising, falling, etc. tones.

      2 – If the tones are more complex, perhaps there could be a glossing system where Spanish is written underneath a graph showing a line of tone; ergo, the higher the position if the line, the higher the tone of the related word or syllable. The problem here (and similar to answer 1) is knowing what constitutes a high tone or a low tone, and thus gauging the rest of the tones in between.

      3 – Perhaps no transcription is required? To back this up, I am currently learning British Sign Language and we are told to neither look in books for signs nor write information about signs down. Sure, there are dictionaries out there, and perhaps my tutors reasoning is greater than what I can go into on this comment, but the idea of Silbo Gomero was to transmit messages over long distances via the medium of sound. If transcription was needed, say, to write a letter, Spanish could be used. If it were required for learning and dissemination, I think it’d be better to hear it, rather than to read it =]

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