What Luck For Whom? - Chapter Three

02/07/2013 - 09:30
  • The Silbadores
How the whistle came to school
Different ways of whistling with fingers / source Le Monde Illustré

In the years during which Silbo Gomero was vanishing, that is from the 1950s to the 1980s, the scientific community developed an increasing interest in whistled languages. At first it was the ethnologists, who were followed by the linguists. Their research and, especially, their obvious interest, encouraged the whistlers, above all the master whistler and former herdsman Don Isidro Ortiz, to work at preserving their special method of communication.

1982 Silbo Gomero is recognized as a protected world cultural heritage.
09/1999 Silbo Gomero becomes a mandatory subject in junior schools on La Gomera.

Ten years later, on September 30 2009, Silbo Gomero is declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Don Antonio Manrique's perdiciton was correct, when he wrote in 1885:

„[Es ist] nichts anderes zu erwarten, als dass eines Tages Pfeifschulen auftauchen werden, deren Zöglinge der Menschheit wichtige Dienste leisten werden. Und wer weiss, ob nicht aus dieser Sache die Wissenschaft grossen Vortheil ziehen wird, indem sie ein Mittel ausfindig macht, die Töne zu verstärken, welche heute bei der Pfeifsprache gebraucht werden.“

“It can only be expected that one day there will be whistling schools, whose pupils will provide important services for humanity.  And who knows, perhaps these schools will give rise to a great benefit to science, in finding a means by which those sounds can be amplified which are used today in the whistled language.” 

El Silfateo

That the whistled language became a subject for study in schools is primarily due to the above mentioned Don Isidro Ortiz. He is by now around 80 years old and still lives in the mountain village of Chipude. Don Isidro is largely responsible for the transcription of the whistled language. And it was this transcription which made it at all possible to teach Silbo Gomero in the classroom. His method is called “Silfateo“.

Now we will be given an introductory lesson in Silbo Gomero by the master himself.

Watch: Don Isidro


To make the whistle, place one finger between lips which are gripped and curved between the upper and lower jaw. Any finger can be used.
The tongue presses against the area between the last section of the finger and the joint.
The air is squeezed through the gap between the finger joint and corner of the mouth.
The intensity of the blowing and the pressure applied by the tongue, or the angle at which it is held in the mouth, control the pitch of the whistle.

And how does the whistle become language?

Silbo Gomero is a phonetic transferral of Spanish into whistles. However, not all sounds which occur in Spanish can be replicated by whistles.

Let's look at the “p”, or the “b”, the “w” and the “v”: These sounds cannot be made with a finger in your mouth, because to make them, the lips have to be closed. Or take as an example sounds for which the tongue has to be moved, as with the “s” or “t” or “z”. Here we have the problem that these sounds can not be made with a tongue which is pressed against the finger.

Silbo Gomero is therefore by its nature limited to two vowels and four consonants.


Vowels can have a high or low pitch.

“I” = highest pitch (2.250 Hz)

“A” = 1.700 Hz

“O” and “U” have the lowest pitch and are therefore difficult to distinguish.


The consonants are either rises or dips in the “melody line” which brings about its rhythm, intonations and pauses.



Whistled Equivalent in the Spanish written alphabet Whistled Equivalents in the Spanish written alphabet
I I, e CH T, ch, s
A A, o, u K P, k
(O)   Y D, n, ñ, l, y, r, rr
(U)   G B, f, m, g, j












Good morning

Buenos días

Geyoi yiai

Good evening

Buenas tardes

Geyai chayei


How can the the 24 sounds which comprise the Spanish language be expressed using just four consonants and two vowels? El Silbo solves this problem by using different pitches, keys and intonation, that is, going up or down with the voice. This is similar to the Chinese:

mà   má   mǎ   ma

This is the same sequence of letters, the difference in meaning lies in the tone.

I will try to make this clearer with an example “Pi-pa-po“:

“P“ can't be whistled because the lips must be closed. So the “p” becomes a “k”. The “i” can be whistled. “A” and “o”, when whistled, can't be told apart. The only thing to do here is modulate the intonation. For “a” the voice goes up, and for “o” it goes down.

Nevertheless there are words which, when whistled, just can't be differentiated. One whistled word can have up to 40 different meanings, and so the context in which the whistle is being produced becomes very important.

The Silbadores deal with this problem in practice by using a standardised means of establishing contact. First there is a long drawn-out whistled “AAAAAAH“, to draw attention. Then the name of the person being addressed is whistled, who responds with “Fuio?“ – “Giiya“ in Silbo – which means, roughly, “What? What do you want?“. The whistles go back and forth until both whistlers are sure that they have understood one another.

That may sound complicated. And it is.

The master whistlers

One of the teachers we met claimed that, on average, 15% become accomplished whistlers, 20% acquire a medium talent, and 65% just never manage to master it. That's what the master says! Of which there are eight on the island, and amongst them there is also mutual animosity.

Who has mastered the true, the authentic Silbo Gomero? The dividing line is drawn by origins: farmer, herdsman, townie, from the East or from the West, from the North or South of the island. The one thing they can agree on is the pupils.

This new generation of whistlers learned Silbo from the masters, but in the classroom, not as in former times, outside in daily use. They are graded on their abilities and Silbo Gomero becomes an entry on their CVs which can open doors in their professional lives.

  • as an ambassador for Silbo Gomero with the tourist ministry
  • in school, as a teacher
  • as an entertainer in restaurants