In a remote mountain village high above Turkey’s Black Sea coast, there are villagers who still communicate across valleys by whistling. Not just whistling as in a non-verbal, “Hey, you!” But actually using what they call their “bird language,” Turkish words expressed as a series of piercing whistles.

By PETER KENYON

The village is Kuskoy, and it’s inhabited by farmers who raise tea, corn, beets and other crops, and also keep livestock. The landscape is unusual by Turkish standards, and the residents are also considered a bit eccentric by other Turks.

Steep hills surround the village of Kuskoy, high in the mountains above Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Some villagers here can still understand the old “bird language,” a form of whistled Turkish used to communicate across these deep valleys.

Everyone we met in Kuskoy was warm, welcoming and very generous.

But when our meeting with Nazmiye Cakir, 60, was interrupted by an eruption of gunfire from across the valley, our hosts smiled reassuringly and paused, as if waiting for more. Sure enough, a few seconds later came an even louder volley – a response from our side of the mountain.

Nazmiye Cakir, a 60-year-old “bird whistler,” learned the whistled language from her grandparents, and still uses it. “The one thing you don’t whistle about is your love talk,” she says with a laugh, “because you’ll get caught!”

Once that bit of nonverbal communication died down, Cakir explained how she learned to whistle Turkish. She says her grandparents often took care of her when she was young, and they passed it on.

There are other whistled languages in the world, one in the Canary Islands for instance. But the Kuskoy bird language excited the interest of a Turkish-German bio-psychologist, Onur Gunturkun.

“I was absolutely, utterly fascinated when I first heard about it,” he says. “And I directly saw the relevance of this language for science.”

That’s because auditory processing of features, including frequency, pitch, and melody–the stuff that whistles are made of–is a job for the right brain.

The perception of all spoken languages – including those with clicks -, written texts and even sign language involves the left brain hemisphere more strongly than the right one. 

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, processes acoustic information via slow frequencies, pitch and melody. 

The left hemisphere is involved since whistled Turkish is a language, but the right hemisphere is equally involved since for this strange language all auditory specializations of this hemisphere are needed.’

Halil Cindik, head of the Kuskoy Bird Language Association, demonstrates his technique for whistling Turkish words and phrases. The piercing tones can be heard a mile or more away, depending on conditions. Cindik says an annual festival is helping to keep the whistled language alive, but the spread of cellphones is causing villagers to abandon it.

That’s important, the researchers say, because it means that the left-hemispheric dominance in language does depend on the physical structure the language takes.

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