Silbo Gomero is a whistled language used since time immemorial on the island of La Gomera to communicate over long distances. It is not a series of preset codes that serve to express limited content, but an articulate language, an unconventional reducer, which allows to exchange an unlimited range of messages by reproducing through whistles the sonorous characteristics of a spoken language. At present, it reproduces the Castilian spoken in the Canary Islands but, theoretically, could do the same with any other language.
The whistled language of La Gomera is one of the most original and representative cultural expressions of the Canary archipelago and the liveliest tradition that has survived from the pre-Hispanic past of these islands. For centuries it has been a cohesive element of the inhabitants of the island of La Gomera and its integration in the community has been such that, despite the different historical events and the many sociological transformations, Silbo Gomero has shown exceptional adaptability to all kinds of changes, surviving as an essential component of the insular culture.
The primary function of this language is to allow communication between people who are at a great distance from each other. This requires a lot of capacity to emit sound. However, the most notable of Silbo technique is the difficulty involved in reproducing a complete language, which uses all the phonation resources of the oral cavity and corresponding subcavities by means of a mechanism – a whistle – which only allows frequency variations of the same fundamental tone. This involves practice and expertise that have been developed over centuries and are surprisingly effective and subtle.
Moreover, Silbo Gomero is characterized by being primarily a social language, suitable for the collective scope far better than for the private level. Although sometimes been used as a secret language, during the conquest, in wars, or for contraband, the messages sent through Silbo are public because it is required so by the very nature of this language. What is transmitted with the whistled language can be heard by people who are not the recipients. In this regard, knowledge or lack of knowledge of Silbo Gomero has contributed to a greater or lesser sense of belonging to the community, although no one has ever been kept away from its study and practice.
The social changes during the latter half of the twentieth century placed Silbo Gomero on the brink of extinction, with only a few dozen senior citizens able to master it. Initiatives from diverse social agents and nationalist parliamentarians of the island of La Gomera led the Canary Islands Parliament and Government to develop specific legislation to safeguard and revitalize Silbo Gomero. These laws, unique in the world in terms of protection of intangible oral heritage, include teaching of the whistled language of La Gomera in the plans for primary and secondary education of all schools on the island. This innovative measure has managed to ensure the survival of Silbo Gomero among the new generations.