The Whistling Island of La Gomera

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.


To follow up on Dylan's post about Ball's Pyramid, we've got a whole category of "Anomalous Islands" in the Atlas Obscura that is waiting to be filled out. One of my favorites is La Gomera, a small island in the Canaries, where people communicate with each other from miles apart using one of the most unusual languages in the world:

Known as Silbo, the whistling language of Gomera Island has a vocabulary of over 4,000 words, and is used by "Silbadors" to send messages across the island's high peaks and deep valleys.

Though Silbo was on the verge of extinction in the 1990s, the Gomerans have made a concerted effort to revive their language by adding it to the public school curriculum. Today 3,000 schoolchildren are in the process of learning it.

Here's a sampling of the language:


  1. Language? If you listen carefully you can hear the same words as the spanish scrolling across the bottom, pronounced while whistling rather than vocalized normally.

    That’s like saying that if I talk in a Cookie Monster voice, I’m speaking CookieMonstro, the rare language of CookieMonstria.

    Still, it does take impressive skill to whistle intelligible Spanish…

  2. Sir, you have just become my favorite BB guest blogger. Thanks for all the fascinating stories!

  3. I know of at least one whistled language that is just a transliteration of the spoken language.

    If you wanted to whistle the word ‘canary’, there might be a whistle for ‘ca’ another for ‘na’ and another for ‘ry’.

  4. I don’t understand what they mean with the number of words. In the example video the person is simply “whistling” Spanish words. I think that it only takes getting used to it and know Spanish to understand. It’s not a language, its a weird form of transmitting an existing language. If you read the subtitles you can see/hear it.


  5. joshuafoer, You are definitely the best guest blogger by far, bringing new meaning to “A directory of Wonderful Things”. Keep up the great work.

    BTW, the whistling fellas are cool too.

  6. Yep, reading Wikipedia, it seems this is NOT a language. It’s (a dialect of) Spanish, encoded in whistles.

    It looks a lot more complex than a “cookie monster voice”, but ultimately it’s not a language- it’s a unique method for transmitting a language. (Sort of like Morse code, braille, or any writing system.)

  7. If a sign language uses the same grammar and syntax as a spoken language, is it the same language?

  8. Where I first heard of La Gomera:

    “. . . the Gomerians whistling from the high ravines (terrific falls, steepness, whistling straight down the precipice to a toy village lying centuries, miles below . . .) [snip] and you listened to Ur-Spanish, whistled not voiced, from the mountains around Chipuda . . . Gomera was the last piece of land Columbus touched before America. Did he hear them too, that last night? Did they have a message for him? A warning? Could he understand the prescient goatherds in the dark, up in the Canarian holly and the faya, gone dead green in the last sunset of Europe?”

    –Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

  9. @ #5
    “I wonder if they ever stutter”

    as a speech pathologist:

    if this is true
    “The language is a whistled form of a dialect of Spanish”(from wikipedia)

    I would say then are no native speakers of silbo

    since there are no native speakers, persons with the propensity to stutter would produce silbo with greatly reduced stuttering as the production would act as a distraction, for a while.

  10. I’m chiming in with all the others saying that you, Joshua, are a terrific guest blogger! :)

  11. @13
    yes, its called Signed Exact English

    American Sign Language shares no morphology or syntax with English

  12. Yes; one more shameless brown-noser: you guys are by far my favorite guest bloggers! Everything you have posted so far has been completely and utterly fascinating. MORE! MORE!

  13. Hey, coincidence! Both this island and Ball’s Pyramid are home to lazarus taxa; in the Pyramid’s case, it’s the Lord Howe Island stick insect, and in Gomera’s case, the La Gomera Giant Lizard, which grows to something over a foot long.

  14. Judging from my cat’s reactions, it says something like “Wake up! Food, food, food, food, food, food, food, food, food, food, food, food, food.”

  15. Lo Gomera is a beautiful island, and, unlike the bigger islands, hasn’t been wrecked by thirty years of relentless tourism.

  16. Waking up to birdsong this morning, I wondered for probably the kerjillionth time what those critters were saying to each other — whether their discussions are as ethereal as they sound, or if they are more along the lines of truck drivers babbling about road hazards and pussy over their CB radios.

    Turns out all I have to do is learn to whistle in Spanish and all their secrets will be revealed.

  17. Sir like many people said before me, you are the best guest blogger BB has had in a while.
    Thank you for sharing.

  18. As one who finds whistling one of the most annoying sounds on Earth, this instantly gave me a headache. Bird song, love, this whistling drove me batty. I had to turn it off.

    Fascinating? Yes. As a person who has never been able to whistle even one single toot, I must applaud. As a way to communicate over long distances? I’ll stick to smoke signals thank you very much.

    Of course I find the human voice ugly and grating, whistling is one step beyond even that.

    That being said, awesome guest blogging!

  19. My six dogs were in their usual state of mid-day semi-consciousness scattered about the house and yard when I played this. They all instantly jumped to their feet and converged upon me in a high state of agitation (which usually only happens at feeding time). I assume the local Gomeran dogs (are there any?) are used to it.

  20. My ex is Spanish/Venezuelan, and his parents are from La Gomera; we spent a month with them over the holidays in 2006, and spent New Year’s on La Gomera.

    Electricity is a relatively recent addition to that island, and telephones are almost unheard of – the topography of the island will make any future investment in cel phone towers expensive, and landlines are almost exclusively the luxury of non-Spanish residents; silbo is the normal way to communicate across distances, as the valleys are incredibly deep and sharp. Senior Mendez, my then-father-in-law, had a long conversation with a neighbor in silbo several hundred feet away, on the next ridge.

    And yes, all the local fauna have adjusted; the wandering neighborhood cats (and one exploratory Chihuahua from the Brit who lived down the hillside from the Mendez’ farmhouse) totally ignored the conversation.

  21. This also seems to be the language spoken by the knitted moon mice featured in the 1970’s BBC documentary, “The Clangers”.

  22. That recording is not very loud. I get the feeling that everyone can shout much louder than they can whistle. Especially if you have to pronounce your words while whistling.

  23. I’d be curious to see an a demonstration of someone actually understanding this communication.

    It may seem comprehensible with the subtitles, but if they were not there?

    I’m also doubtful that this whistling would carry to any advantageous distance.

  24. Dude I’m Spanish and if you remove the subs I won’t be able to understand a single word :S

  25. My late husband grew up in La Laja, del a Gomera. he was a good whistler and whistled in English to me when he was in the back yard and I was in the house. I learned easily how to understand him. it was a fun language!
    when we visited his village in 1988, He whistled across the mountain valley to a relative that he had not seen for years! he whistled back and asked him to run over and see him! this was magic to me and I saw the little boy come out in him as he re lived his youth in that precious valley. His brothers would know how to do this whistle too.
    sadly, Roberto was killed in an industrial accident here in Australia in 1994. Hearing silbo again has made me smile!
    Pamela Sanchez

  26. “Languages communicated by whistling are relatively rare, but are known from around the world. One example is the Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, which maintains Spanish’s five vowels, but reduces its consonants down to four. Others exist or existed in all parts of the world including Turkey (Kusköy “Village of the Birds”), France (the village of Aas in the Pyrenees), Mexico (the Zapotecs of Oaxaca), South America (Piraha), Asia (the Chepang of Nepal), and New Guinea. They are especially common and robust today in parts of West Africa, used widely in such populous languages as Yoruba and Ewe. Even French is whistled in some areas of western Africa.”

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