Phonetic Exercises

Phonetic Exercises - Languages in Danger

Author: Maciej Karpiński
The art of whistling

Silbo Gomero

Silbo Gomero is a very peculiar language as it belongs to so-called “whistled languages”. Here you can listen to and learn some basic Silbo:

Download a sample of Silbo conversation from:

In literature, you may find various data on “typical pitch ranges”. One may assume that the pitch frequency for male voices usually fits between 75Hz and 150Hz, for females you may expect a range from 150Hz to 500Hz, and for children probably from 200Hz to 600Hz. But these are only typical values and, when setting such parameters, it is highly recommended to listen to a voice first. For whistling, pitch frequency is normally relatively high. But how much higher?

Open it with Praat (in [View & Edit] window) or in WaveSurfer (in [Speech Analysis] mode). In Praat, you may have to adjust the pitch frequency range. To do so, open [Pitch settings] from the [Pitch] menu in the [View & Edit] window. Try with the pitch range from 300Hz to 1000Hz and, according to what you see, narrow it down, move or extend.

[The pitch frequency of whistling is, obviously, much higher, especially when you take speaking and whistling males into account. In whistling it is not your larynx and vocal folds but lips that are responsible for the major component sound.]

How is the spectrum different from regular speech? Record a sample of you regular speech and open in another [View & Edit] window.

[The spectrum of whistling is certainly not as rich and variable as of “regular speech”. There are no plosions and the shimmering or noisy sounds are rare – the sound is sort of “fluent”.]

From the menu [Formants] in the [View & Edit] window, choose [Show formants]. Formants (formant frequencies) are the frequencies of high energy in the signal. Normally, you can see a couple of them as more or less horizontal strips in the spectrogram. Please look at how they run relative to the pitch contour of Silbo utterances.

[You can find a degree of similarity between the shape of the lower formants and the shape of pitch trace. All of them seem to “go together” most of the time – they rise with the rising pitch and fall when pitch falls. But when you take a closer look, they come sometimes more or less closer to each other. Actually, vowels can be distinguished by the differences in the (relative) formant values.]

Where are the consonants? Silbo sounds as if deprived of consonants. Of course, it is very atypical situation and phonologists had a difficulty accepting a language without consonants and offered some possible explanations to avoid treating Silbo as an exception from the rule. What can function as a consonant or consonants in Silbo? Can you formulate your hypothesis? Try to listen to a few utterances in Silbo and mimic them with “ma-ma-ma...” or “ba-ba-ba...”.

[According to Trujillo (1978), the consonants are either rises or dips in the melody line. In further resaerch, Meyer and Rialland did attempts to link certain features of whistling to certain features of four consonant classes.]

Where are the syllables? If one can find consonants in Silbo, then there must be (?) also syllables. Can you spot them? If yes, reflect on your strategy of distinguishing syllables in Silbo. How do you spot their boundaries? Or you rather focus on some “centres”? Maybe it would be easier first to think about your native language and its syllables. Take into account that you native language competence may strongly influence your perception of other languages!

[Phoneticians approach syllables anxiously as they still cannot define them precisely enough. In some languages, most of the syllables are built of a consonant and a vowel (CV like in “do” or, as a repeated pattern, in “ba-na-na”). One can also easily find languages where syllables can be “closed” with a vowel (CVC pattern, found in, e.g., “pan-da” or have even more complex structures)].

Try to record some whistling of your own (if you can) or of a friend of yours and compare it with the Silbogomero sample. Try to mimic a whistled utterance in Silbo. Compare the pitch trace of your utterance with the original one. How closely can you follow it?

More whistling

In Mexico, you can find another whistled language. You can listen to a conversation here:

Here you can find information on many more whistled languages:

References for Silbo Gomero

Meyer, J. 2008. Typology and acoustic strategies of whistled languages: Phonetic comparison and perceptual cues of whistled vowels. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 38 (1): 69–94.
Rialland, A. 2005. Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages. Phonology, 22 (2): 237–271.
Trujillo, R. 1978. El Silbo Gomero: análisis lingüístico. Santa Cruz de Tenerife: I. Canaria: Editiorial Interinsular Canaria.