This article gives a brief historical run-up to, as well as a description of, the quite recent achievement of finally now compiling a comprehensive and correct phonological breakdown of the articulated whistled language. This article is of great benefit to learners either curious or interested in the language, giving them a firm handle on the diverse sounds of the language and when to use which sound. I will lay out a list of the whistled phonemes, with their corresponding Spanish spoken phonemes, clearly showing which (few) whistled sounds cover which (many) spoken sounds.
There has been much debate among linguists and analysts as to what is the correct phonological breakdown of whistled languages, and especially that version which has been most observed, studied and discussed: Canary Island or Canarian Whistled Language, also often known by its names in Spanish: silbo canario, silbo gomero, silbo herreño.
Amazingly, the most widely respected and quoted scientific studies on whistled language systems have so often got it so wrong, greatly misinterpreting the phonemes involved. This may be partly because usually the investigators and reviewers didn't actually use (emit or understand) the language themselves, and therefore relied on often untrustworthy human and machine resources to analyse its components.
Even today, many descriptions of the Canary Whistle wrongly report it as having only two vowels and four consonants, to the point that even some accomplished whistlers while whistling many more phonemes, paradoxically actually believe the official narrative that there are only six in all.
But then entered a new generation of researchers who also whistle, most notably David Díaz Reyes, who I call the messiah of Canary Whistle, as he has studied, discovered, written and demonstrated widely on many and varied facets of such matters, as well as widely teaching, promoting and invigorating its use here in the Canary Islands -- and further afield (including his recent efforts to reverse the extinction of the historical whistled language of a lofty French Pyrenees village: Aas).
David (an excellent Canary whistler himself, as well as accomplished linguist and musician) not only correctly phonologically analysed the widely known Gomera whistled speech, but also rediscovered and then correctly analysed the practically unknown Hierro version, while also making it finally fully known to the wider world, and seems to have snatched it back from the gaping jaws of extinction and oblivion.
I also have been using, analysing, studying and documenting the Canaries Whistle language since the last century, and with David and others' invaluable help I now have a clear linguistic grasp on a workable breakdown of all the sounds we emit and receive in this astonishing ancient method of communication, which I will briefly and basically lay out below, to give a general idea of its repertoire of phonemes and their distribution.
Currently in the Canaries, the language whistled is Spanish, having changed a few hundred years ago from the preceding vernacular: Berber; and there are also practically identical systems of articulated whistled speech in other parts of the world currently using Greek and Turkish, among other languages (including modern Berber in the Atlas mountains of Morocco).
The Canary Whistle has a phoneme repertoire of at least 4 vowels and 5 consonants, with some intrepid whistlers managing to nuance these into an even greater number at times.
As there is no one official (orthographic) system of writing it, I've devised my own quite simple one, using the following letters to represent the whistled sounds represented by the then following Spanish letters.
- A = Spanish a.
- O = Spanish o (usually indistinguishable from the whistled u).
- U = Spanish u (usually indistinguishable from the whistled o).
- E = Spanish e.
- I = Spanish i, y (when a pure vowel).
- B = Spanish b, v, f, p, and m (all four Spanish labial consonants).
- K = Spanish k, c (when hard, or a voiceless velar stop, as when written before a, o and u), qu (really just one consonant, the K sound, which happens to have several spellings in Spanish).
- Y = Spanish y (when a consonant/semi-vowel), l, ll, n, ñ, r, rr, d(when fricative). This consonant covers the most expansive group of spoken consonants.
- X = Spanish x, t, ch, s, d (when plosive), c (when soft, or a voiceless alveolar fricative, as when written before an i or an e).
- G = Spanish g (both hard and soft, so also including the graphic gu when written before an i and an e), j. (This consonant covers only two quite similar spoken consonants.)
Therefore, the spoken Spanish phrase “El silbo canario es muy bonito” would be most accurately represented in its whistled form as “Ey xiybo kayayio ey buy boyixo”. This spelling is a convenient guide for the learner whistler to immediately see which whistled vowels and consonants to strive for in order to whistle such phrases, reflecting both its intrinsic distinctions and ambiguities.
With time and practice, it all actually becomes quite intuitive and not as complicated as it first looks here in theory, as a person's whistle soon adapts to simply reflect the sounds of the original spoken words.
That there is my breakdown of the phonology of Canary Island Whistled speech, which you can see is basically a reduced dynamic of Canary Island spoken Spanish, wherein the five spoken vowels are reduced to a whistled four, and the twenty or so spoken consonants reduced to five when whistled.
For an adult learner, these categories are convenient to learn in order to first master the use of the different phonemes of whistled speech. Just like the A-B-C trick that is used for remembering the pedals of a manual car when first learning to drive, and in the same way the learned code soon becomes unnecessary with repeated practice, when habit and muscle memory take over, we soon learn to whistle without consciously focusing on such systems, just like driving a car.
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