Silbo gomero, also known as el silbo, is a form of communication that has been used by residents of La Gomera, an island off of Morocco’s Atlantic coast, since before European settlers arrived in the 15th century. El Silbo (silbo is Spanish for whistle) is an ancient whistling language used by shepherds and farmers to communicate across hilltops to warn of fires, announce events, and tell neighbors to bring over wine.
La Gomera is situated in the heavily touristed Spanish Canary Islands. While the resort-dotted coasts of neighboring Tenerife and Gran Canaria are party hotspots, La Gomera keeps to itself with a permanent population of approximately 20,000 residents. The easiest way to get to La Gomera is from the bigger islands via ferry, a 45-minute journey long enough to dissuade casual travelers.
The island abounds in microclimates and contains unique geographical features including black-sand tropical beaches, desert plateaus, verdant cloud forests, fern-filled valleys, and soaring mountains. The range of altitudes might explain why the island's early inhabitants developed their own long-distance form of communicating.
El silbo mimics the sound of Castilian Spanish, using a few whistled syllables. Early settlers may have arrived from Africa bringing the language with them or the language may have been born out of topographical necessity; a definitive answer does not exist. Farms extend from the bottom of La Gomera's rich, volcanic valleys and continue up terraced, treeless mountainsides. It is easier to whistle across the peaks and valleys than to shout or to climb across the steep terrain.
Today, el silbo is spoken in mountain towns where shepherds use it for communicating commands to their livestock. Cell phones have made it less essential than it once was. In fact, el silbo is more likely to be heard echoing in school hallways. In response to a decline in speakers, the Spanish government made the language compulsory in primary and secondary schools in the 1990s. A new generation can now connect with their cultural heritage through whistling, whether they choose to herd livestock or not.