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Spanish Regional Languages - Gomeran

By Mr Grumpy - Sun 14th Feb 2010

Over the past few months I have blogging about just a few of the many and diverse languages spoken within Spain – ranging from the widely spoken “Co-official languages” to the lesser spoken and “protected” languages. Some, like Catalan, are easily recognisable by the foreigner because of their relation to Castilian / French, and some, like Basque, remain an enigma even to the Spanish themselves.

One of the strangest and least known and spoken Spanish language is undoubtedly that of the tiny Canary island of Gomera.

The “language” is known locally as Silbo Gomero (Spanish for 'Gomeran Whistle'), often shortened to "El Silbo", is a whistled language which is spoken by the island’s Inhabitants to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate through the island. A speaker of Silbo Gomero is sometimes referred to in Spanish as "un silbador".

There is little known of the original languages of the Canary Islands, though it is assumed they must have had a simple enough phonetic make-up in order to allow an efficient whistled language to evolve from it. Silbo is thought to have been invented by the original inhabitants of the island (known as the ‘Guanches’), and "spoken" on el Hierro, Tenerife, and Gran Canaria aswell. It was adapted into Spanish the by the last Guanches and adopted by the Spanish settlers in the 16th century which ensured it’ survival as a language. In 1976 Silbo barely remained on el Hierro, where it had flourished at the end of the nineteenth century. With the threat of this unique method of communication about to die out completely in the late 20th century, the local government required all Schoolchildren on Gomera to study it as part of the curriculum. The language's survival before then was largely down to it’s use by Shepherds and Farmers communicating across the ravines and the ease with which it is learned by native speakers.

A study by the University of La Laguna reported that the vowels can be either high or low, and the consonants are either rises or dips in the “melody line” which can be broken or continuous. A different study found that there are a total of 4 clearly recognisable vowels. They also found that Silbo was processed in the brain in exactly the same way as any other spoken language when the guinea pig understood the language, whereas a ‘non-speaker’ just processed the information as a random collection of noises – IE not even recognizing the sequence of notes as a language.

I trust that the reader will forgive me if, unlike my other blogs on the subject of Spanish languages, I do not end my blog with a table of vocabularly - just be careful not to whistle if you find yourself on holiday in the Canary Islands !

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