BITS and Pieces

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Silbo Gomero

The spot for the world’s most beautiful language has quite a few able contenders: Italian with its delicious musicality, French with its dedication to euphony and its chic phonetic inventory, Persian with its famous epiglottal sounds… But somewhere in the deep ravines and narrow valleys of the Canary Islands, thrives an unassuming whistle language: Silbo Gomero. Unique, unimaginably creative and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful languages in the world, it was declared as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.

A whistle language?

A Spanish whistle language, if I may add. Silbo Gomero is a transposition of Spanish from speech to whistling. It is used in the La Gomera Island of Spain to relay messages over a distance of up to 5 kilometers across ravines and valleys. The language has a reduced set of whistled phonemes that emulate Spanish phonology. Said to have existed in the Canaries from before the arrival of Spanish settlers, Silbo was adapted to Spanish during the Spanish settlement in the 16th C.

How does the language work?

The Silbo Gomero language has two vowels and four consonants that replace the sounds of Spanish, making a normal conversation sound like the chirping of birds. These whistled sounds are distinguished according to pitch and continuity. This makes it a very complex language to learn, with its whistling techniques requiring physical precision. While conventional languages only use the vocal apparatus to produce speech, Silbo also makes use of the hands of the speaker to produce pitch variations between 1,000 and 3,000 hertz. This limited pitch range, however, means that the same pitch can represent many sounds. Hence, context and appropriate choice of words are very important for effective communication.

Tell me more!

The language was endangered in the late 20th C and, as a result, those born between 1950 and 1980 are unable to speak it since it was barely used and negatively viewed during their language acquisition years. The younger generation, however, is formally taught Silbo at school due to revitalization efforts by the community and the government. Today, the Gomeran community treasures the language as a part of the island’s identity and uses it in traditional rituals and festivals. Whistling has also become an essential part of the tourism industry; visitors to the island have the opportunity to be exposed to the language in restaurants.

I just added things to your travel and language bucket list, didn’t I?

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Sonali Kulkarni - Editor-in-Chief, French-English Translator A novice at adulthood and an ardent disciple of Dan Brown and Ayn Rand, Sonali is a pathological bookworm, a borderline nerdy introvert and a hardcore adventure junkie who cannot live without chocolate. She is currently studying French and manages to speak some Spanish too. Having represented her state in national level Athletics for the better part of a decade, the nomad in her has now given it up to venture into the exciting world of languages, writing and travel.