Whistling is used as a mode of language in some cultures, especially where there is a need to communicate at large distances — whistling sounds can carry a long way and can be used to simulate spoken words.

Yesterday on Boing Boing, Joshua Foer wrote about Silbo, the whistling language of La Gomera, one of Spain’s Canary Islands — see “The Whistling Island of La Gomera.”

The following video, linked from YouTube, gives a fascinating demostration of Silbo. The speaker describes the features of the island using only Silbo, with subtitles in Spanish.

After listening to the speaker for only a minute or so, I believe I was able to discern that numbers are expressed as quick chirps at different pitches, and that some words are distinguished by a rising or falling tone, as in tonal languages like Mandarin.

Foer, who writes the Atlas Obscura blog, says that Silbo nearly became extinct in the 1990s, but efforts by Gomera inhabitants have led to the language’s inclusion in school curricula on the island — see “The Whistling Island.” He writes that Silbo has more than 4,000 words.

For more information about Gomera and the Silbo language, see this web site.

AB — 20 June 2009

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