By SARAH ANDREWS, Associated Press Writer
SAN SEBASTIAN, Canary Islands - Juan Cabello takes pride in not using
a cell phone or the Internet to communicate. Instead, he puckers up
Cabello is a "silbador," until recently a dying breed on tiny,
mountainous La Gomera, one of Spain's Canary Islands off West Africa.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Cabello, 50, knows "Silbo
Gomero," a language that's whistled, not spoken, and can be heard
more than two miles away.
This chirpy brand of chatter is thought to have come over with early
African settlers 2,500 years ago. Now, educators are working hard to
save it from extinction by making schoolchildren study it up to age
Silbo — the word comes from Spanish verb silbar, meaning to whistle —
features four "vowels" and four "consonants" that can be strung
together to form more than 4,000 words. It sounds just like bird
conversation and Cabello says it has plenty of uses.
"I use it for everything: to call to my wife, to tell my kids
something, to find a friend if we get lost in a crowd," Cabello said.
In fact, he makes a living off Silbo, performing daily exhibitions at
a restaurant on this island of 147 square miles and 19,000 people.
A snatch of dialogue in Silbo is posted at
http://www.agulo.net/silbo/silbo.mp3 and translates as follows:
"Look, go tell Julio to bring the castanets."
"OK. Hey, Julio!"
"Lili says you should go get the kids and have them bring the
castanets for the party."
"OK, OK, OK."
Silbo was once used throughout the hilly terrain of La Gomera as an
ingenious way of communicating over long distances. A strong whistle
saved peasants from trekking over hill and dale to send messages or
news to neighbors.
Then came the phone, and it's hard to know how many people use Silbo
"A lot of people think they do, but there is a very small group who
can truly communicate through Silbo and understand Silbo," said
Manuel Carreiras, a psychology professor from the island of Tenerife.
He specializes in how the brain processes language and has studied
Since 1999, Silbo has been a required language in La Gomera's
elementary schools. Some 3,000 students are studying it 25 minutes a
week — enough to teach the basics, said Eugenio Darias, a Silbo
teacher and director of the island's Silbo program.
"There are few really good silbadores so far, but lots of students
are learning to use it and understand it," he said. "We've been very
But almost as important as speaking — sorry, whistling — Silbo is
studying where it came from, and little is known.
"Silbo is the most important pre-Hispanic cultural heritage we have,"
said Moises Plasencia, the director of the Canary government's
historical heritage department.
It might seem appropriate for a language that sounds like birdsong to
exist in the Canary Islands, but scholarly theories as to how the
archipelago got its name make no mention of whistling.
Little is known about Silbo's origins, but an important step toward
recovering the language was the First International Congress of
Whistled Languages, held in April in La Gomera. The congress, which
will be repeated in 2005, brought together experts on various
Silbo-like whistling has been found in pockets of Greece, Turkey,
China and Mexico, but none is as developed as Silbo Gomero, Plasencia
One study is looking for vestiges of Silbo in Venezuela, Cuba and
Texas, all places to which Gomerans have historically emigrated
during hard economic times.
Now, Plasencia is heading an effort to have UNESCO declare it
an "intangible cultural heritage" and support efforts to save
it. "Silbo is so unique and has many values: historical, linguistic,
anthropological and aesthetic. It fits perfectly with UNESCO's
requirements," he said.
Besides, says Cabello, it's good for just about anything except for
romance: "Everyone on the island would hear what you're saying!"