Music or language? El Silbo Gomero (‘the Gomeran whistle’)

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In the misty mountains of the Canary island La Gomera (next to Tenerife) sounds the whistle of a particularly curious bird: humans. On this island, farmers have been communicating by whistling melodies to one another for as long as they can remember.

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Although that might not sound very intriguing at first – in the Netherlands we surely also hear whistling in the streets -, it does become so when you learn what is hidden in these sounds: the whistles in the mountains of La Gomera contain actual language! At distances of up to two kilometers, farmers whistle to each other or their partners that “the barn door should be opened, so the goats can walk in right away”. That’s a lot more complicated than the whistles we use to tell someone “watch out!”, or to call the dog on the beach. How do they do this?

The acoustics of Silbo Gomero
Silbo Gomero, Spanish for ‘the Gomeran whistle’, is in essence a whistled version of Spanish. The speakers of Silbo capture the most important aspects of the melody of spoken Spanish. To do this, the speakers convert the differences in amplitude and pitch that exist in spoken language to whistles. This way part of the Spanish phonemes can be conveyed. Phonemes are the sounds that make up a language: vowels, such as “a” and “e”, and consonants, such as “k” and “s”.

Silbo Gomero simplifies the Spanish vowels to two vowels, which are expressed through a high- or low-pitched whistle. The high-pitched whistle means “i”, or “e”, and the low-pitched whistle means “o”, “a” or “oo” (as in “boot”). By interrupting the whistle in different ways, up to nine different consonants can be distinguished. The original, spoken Spanish has more phonemes: five vowels, and about 20 consonants. Although this way a lot of information can be transmitted from one mountaintop to the next, it does mean that some sounds are indistinguishable. These missing differences between sounds need to be filled in by the listener.

Whistled language in the brain
When you’re filling in sounds to understand Silbo, do you use your brain in a different way than while comprehending spoken speech? To find this out, researchers from the University of the Canary Islands had people listen to Silbo Gomero inside an MRI-scanner. An MRI-scanner measures how oxygenated blood flows through the brain. This allows you to see which areas of the brain are active: active brain areas use more oxygenated blood than less active brain areas. The researchers studied speakers of Silbo Gomero, and people who only spoke Spanish.

Guess what? While listening to the whistles of Silbo, the brains of Silbo speakers were active in areas that we use during the comprehension of spoken language. Those areas are mainly located in the left hemisphere. The brains of people who spoke only Spanish, did not respond in this way. This means that understanding Silbo Gomero is similar to understanding spoken language!

Actually, this finding is not too surprising. Imagine you are video chatting with a friend, and you have a very bad connection. Every now and then, small chunks of what your friend is saying are omitted, and everything you do hear is very noisy. Usually this is no problem: you are able to fill in what you couldn’t hear properly. Speakers of Silbo Gomero do something similar to decipher the whistles.

A phone call or a whistle?
Because Silbo Gomero is a type of Spanish, in principle any message can be communicated. But because many sounds are not directly recognizable, the messages need to be at least a little predictable. Imagine your friend with the bad connection suddenly starts talking about a “purple […]ant” in her room; it’s unlikely that you’ll understand immediately that she is talking about the painting of a (purple) elephant above her desk. What you can convey in Silbo is restricted in a similar way. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that the number of speakers of Silbo Gomero has been decreasing since the rise of the (mobile) phone, which doesn’t have this restriction.

Nevertheless, the inhabitants of La Gomera remain proud of their UNESCO-protected cultural heritage, and Silbo has been part of the school curriculum since 1999. Hopefully this means that we will keep hearing the bright melodies in the mountains of La Gomera.

(Silbo Gomero is not the only language that is reminiscent of music, by the way. There are other whistled languages, such as the Turkish-based language of Kusköy. In Senegal people even use drums to talk! Perhaps this will be the topic of a future blog…)

Read further:

  • Carreiras, M., Lopez, J., Rivero, F., & Corina, D. (2005). Linguistic perception: Neural processing of a whistled language. Nature, 433(7021), 31–32. doi:10.1038/433031a
  • Rialland, A. (2005). Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages.Phonology, 22, pp 237-271 doi:10.1017/S0952675705000552
  • Trujillo, R. (1978). El silbo gomero: Análisis lingüístico. Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canarias: Editorial I. Canaria (in Spanish)

 

Writer: Sophie Slaats
Editor: Naomi Nota
Dutch translation: Sophie Slaats, Eva Poort
German translation: Ronny Bujok
Final editing: Merel Wolf

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