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Turkish people are talking with whistles, and it’s challenging how we think the brain works

Two men whistle to one another across a valley of about half a mile across in Kuskoy, Turkey. (Video: Courtesy of Onur Gunturkun)

The steep mountains and valleys of Kuskoy, Turkey, often echo with shrill tunes like the sound of birds. But what you hear are not birds — they are people, using a centuries-old language based on ear-splitting whistles.

The community, whose name translates to "Bird Village," is one of the few places on Earth where people still use a complex system of whistles to communicate with one another, and a study published this week in the journal Current Biology says the language is challenging the way scientists have long understood how the brain interprets language.

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To be fair, though, the whistling is not its own independent language. It's actually an adaptation of modern Turkish, with each whistle tone representing a different syllable in the language. Because of this structure, the whistled language can easily be updated to include new words or phrases.

"We are unbelievably lucky that such a language indeed exists," Onur Gunturkun, author of the study and a professor at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, said in a statement. "It is a true experiment of nature."

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Centuries ago — we're not really sure when — the language became essential for knowing the goings-on of the community. The rough terrain along the Black Sea coast makes simple travel — even a trip to the nearest neighbor's house — difficult, and voices can be heard only so far (the furthest recorded has gone only about 600 feet in still air, according to Guinness World Records). Whistling, however, can be heard clearly from miles away, so villagers picked it up as a key form of communication.

Sometimes, even the birds join in on the chatter.

The Turkish village is not totally alone in the world. A whistled version of Spanish — called Silbo — is still used in the Canary Islands and is widely studied. Similar communication is known to have been used in Greece, Mexico and Mozambique.

The tradition is under serious threat thanks to modern technology such as cellphones and the Internet, but veteran whistlers in Turkey — who actually compete to see who whistles the most eloquently — are determined to pass along the skill to their children and keep the language alive.

In the mean time, scientists are puzzling out how the brain processes this strange form of language. Language interpretation has long been thought to occur mostly on the left side of the brain, regardless of the language's physical structure. Whistling, however, seems to get processed in both hemispheres of the brain, Gunturkun's study found.

[Who ya callin’ bird brain?]

The right side of the brain is known as the place where the brain processes sound, including frequency, pitch and melody. We use that portion of the brain to detect sarcasm, and there's research out there that shows we use it to understand music — although how the right and left sides of the brain split up music is still contested. Gunturkun's study gives us clues as to how the brain processes these complex signals, although he plans to continue studying the language with brain scans to get more in-depth information.

"We could show that whistled Turkish creates a balanced contribution of the hemispheres," Gunturkun said. "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."

Regardless, whistling is not an easy dialect to pick up. People fluent in the language start learning it early on as children and sometimes require schooling to nail down.

"As a native Turkish-speaking person, I was struck that I did not understand a single word when these guys started whistling," Gunturkun said. "Not one word! After about a week, I started recognizing a few words, but only if I knew the context."

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