Herders' Whistled Language Shows Brain's Flexibility

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Carreiras said silbadores are able to pass a surprising amount of information via their whistles.

"The shepherds could whistle a conversation about relativity theory if they wanted, however, they usually talk about other things," he said. "In daily life they use whistles to communicate short commands, but any Spanish sentence could be whistled."

A silbador sticks a finger in his or her mouth to increase the whistle's pitch. The other hand can be cupped like a megaphone to direct the sound.

African Roots

Carreiras says the origins of Silbo Gomero remain obscure but that indigenous Canary Islanders, who were of North African extraction, already had a whistled language when Spain conquered the volcanic islands in the 15th century.

Whistled languages survive today in Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Vietnam, Guyana, China, Nepal, Senegal, and a few mountainous pockets in southern Europe. There are thought to be as many as 70 whistled languages still in use, though only 12 have been described and studied scientifically.

This form of communication is an adaptation found among cultures where people are often isolated from each other, according to Julien Meyer, a researcher at the Institute of Human Sciences in Lyon, France. "They are mostly used in mountains or dense forests," he said.

Whistled languages, Meyer said, "are quite clearly defined and represent an original adaptation of the spoken language—like a local cellular phone—for the needs of isolated human groups."

But with modern communication technologies now widely available, researchers say whistled languages like Silbo Gomero are threatened with extinction.

"It was a way of communication over deep valleys and steep mountains," Carreiras said. "Now you can do that with cell phones."

With dwindling numbers of Gomera islanders still fluent in the language, Canaries authorities are taking steps to try to ensure its survival.

Since 1999 Silbo Gomero has been taught in all of Gomera's elementary schools. In addition, locals are seeking assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"The local authorities are trying to get an award from UNESCO to declare [Silbo Gomero] as something that should be preserved for humanity," Carreiras added.

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