Islanders don't just whistle while they work

It is indisputably one of the world’s more original languages.

For more than half a millennium, the inhabitants of the Spanish Canary Island of La Gomera have communicated over steep slopes and isolated valleys by whistling.

The whistle language—known as Silbo, from the Spanish word “silbar” or “to whistle”—has aroused the interest of scientists who believe it highlights the versatility of the brain’s language-processing centres.

Silbo is believed to have been brought to the Canary Islands by Moroccan Berbers long before Spanish conquerors came in the 15th century, when French missionaries reported of a strange tribe of islanders who spoke by whistling.

At that time, Silbo was in use not only on La Gomera, but also on other Canary Islands such as Tenerife and El Hierro.

After Spanish conquest, the islanders switched from whistling their original language, Guanche, to whistling Spanish sounds.

Silbo is used mainly by farmers and shepherds to communicate over rough terrain, with a good whistler having a range of up to 5km.

Silbo condenses Spanish into two vowels and four consonants, explains David Corina of the University of Washington, co-author of a new study on Silbo published in the journal Nature.

“In general, anything in Spanish can be translated into Silbo, but context is very important,” Corina said. Silbo is a practical language that is mainly used to say things such as “open the gate” or “there is a stray sheep”, he added.

“When I was a child and we lived in the mountains, we did not have electricity or telephone,” shepherd and Silbo teacher Lino Rodriguez said. “My father used to whistle to me depending on whether he wanted me to bring a pickaxe, a spade or a pail of water.”

Silbo phrases were also used to spread news of births and deaths in the community.
Corina says there are comparable whistling languages in Greece, Turkey, China and Mexico.

In the age of cellphones, Silbo is dying out.

“Only about 20 really good whistlers remain, though more people know how to whistle a few phrases,” says Manuel Carreiras of the University of La Laguna on Tenerife.

La Gomera authorities are trying to rescue Silbo by teaching it to hundreds of schoolchildren.

The student first learns to whistle her or his name by placing the forefinger and middle finger in the mouth. The tones are modulated with the tongue while the other hand is used for amplification.

The most difficult bit is to train the ear to distinguish what the sounds mean.

Silbo is now being studied by scientists who say the brain processes the whistles in a similar way it goes about deciphering English, Spanish or other spoken languages.

When hearing Silbo, proficient whistlers show activation of the brain centres that deal with processing speech, whereas non-users do not, according to the study published in Nature.

“The brain is adaptable in understanding a variety of forms of communication,” Corina concluded.—Sapa-DPA