SCIENCE

The Secret Of The Strange Whistling Language Of Turkey

"The organization of our brain, in terms of its asymmetrical structure, is not as fixed as we assume."

It's called the "bird language" because it sounds, well, like the whistle of birds. But make no mistake about it: the whistling language used by villagers in one part of Turkey is a very real and complex human language. 

While the people of Kuskoy -- aka "Bird Village" --  speak Turkish up close, they switch to whistling to communicate over the vast distances of their community.

"If you look at the topography, it is clear how handy whistled communication is," researcher Onur Güntürkün of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany said in a news release. "You can't articulate as loud as you can whistle, so whistled language can be heard kilometers away across steep canyons and high mountains."

The whistling is based on Turkish, with each sound representing a syllable, according to the Washington Post.  

But what makes the language so remarkable is not just that people can have entire conversations by whistling. 

It's what happens inside the brain. 

Until now, language has been considered a largely "left brain" ability, in that the left side of the brain is primarily responsible for handling it. 

But a new study by Güntürkün and his colleagues finds that when villagers listen to the bird language, they use the left and right hemispheres equally

The results of the study published in Current Biology "tell us that the organization of our brain, in terms of its asymmetrical structure, is not as fixed as we assume,” Güntürkün told the New Yorker. “The way information is given to us appears to change the architecture of our brain in a radical way.” 

(The New Yorker also has a selection of audio files demonstrating the bird language.)

Of course, the very thing that makes the whistled language so handy -- the ability to communicate over vast distances -- also has a downside: lack of privacy.

As a result, cellphones are threatening to make "bird language" irrelevant.  

“You can gossip with a mobile phone, but you can’t do that with whistling because the whole valley hears,” Güntürkün told New Scientist, which says about 10,000 people in the village currently speak the language. 

Some villagers are lamenting the high-tech threat to their whistles. 

"We love this tradition, but these days, the children never let go of their phones," farmer Ramazan Calik told the Wall Street Journal in 2013. "I want my children to learn, but it's hard when they don't have the same use for it as we did years ago."

 

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