SilboEl Silbo, Gomera’s unique whistling language is undergoing its biggest revival in centuries and will soon come to the attention of people and places all over the globe.In the next few weeks, UNICEF will decide whether or not to grant world heritage status to La Gomera’s whistle. If approved, it would be an enormous boost for all those who are trying to save the island’s historic whistling language and ensure it is learnt by generations to come.

Silbo is already a compulsory part of schools curriculum in La Gomera but UNICEF’s grants would allow the message to be spread throughout the Canaries and beyond – quite literally.

Ten years ago, the art was dying out and only the very old had mastered its complicated technique. Now, children as young as five are beginning to whistle while they work, play and chat. Forget the mobile phone! Silbo has become the secret code of the playground, ensuring that the ancient tradition will live on.

Based on only four consonants and four vowels, it involves shaping a finger into a u and inserting it into the side of the mouth. It might seem simple but it can take up to three months just to learn that first step and then years to master how to whistle a conversation with more than 4,000 words. Some never achieve the art.

To the uninitiated, it sounds very much like birds chattering with trills and chirps. The language is thought to have originated in ancient Guanche times, more than 2,500 years ago and was brought to Gomera by the Berbers of Morocco.

The tones of Silbo can be heard from up to two kilometres away, it was used by farmers and residents to communicate to each other when it was impossible to travel quickly across the many ravines and mountains. It’s said that the silbo message can be heard from one end of Gomera to the other if passed on from one person to another, and that could involve a chain stretching 26 kilometres. Whistling not only travels further than shouting it is also less of a strain on the throat.

The language is unique because it has adopted the Spanish speech pattern and is not just disjointed words. It flows the same as a proper conversation.
Users are called a Silbador, or Silbadores in the plural. There are whistling languages in areas of Greece,Turkey,China and Mexico but none have developed as much as Silbo which has spread to Venezuela,Cuba and Texas
through Gomeros who have moved there.

Most of the older residents who know Silbo learnt it on the streets but now school-children have at least 25 minutes of tuition each week.
It’s a language which certainly proved very handy before the advent of mobile phones. La Gomera didn’t have main roads until 1935 and one village was without a public phone box until 1993.