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Turkish "Bird Language" Falling Silent

In the remote Turkish village of Kuşköy, residents long ago developed an unusual and fascinating method of communication: a whistled dialect of Turkish, called “kuş dili” or “bird language, ” in which whistles correspond to the sounds of the Turkish alphabet.  Using “bird language,” people could easily communicate with their nearest neighbors, the nearest of whom might well be located on the other side of a valley or a ravine.

Whistled languages are rare in human history, though other examples still exist today, including Silbo Gomero in the Canary Islands and the Chinantec and Mazatec languages of Mexico. They generally evolved out of a need to be able to communicate over long distances and rough terrain, as in Kuşköy. As Ibrahim Kodalak explained to the Atlantic,

“Electricity only came here in 1986, and before that it was hard to communicate over long distances; we really needed bird language…If you can’t make your voice heard over a long distance, you could also make a chain with different people relaying the message.”

Unfortunately, just as video killed the radio star, modern technology may spell the end for kuş dili. As village headman Metin Köçek put it:

“Now we have roads, electricity and phone lines. In our childhood, the bird language was used a lot in daily life. Now we meet the same needs by using a cell phone.”

Why learn to whistle Turkish when you can text? Plus, village children today often leave to seek work in the cities, so even if they learn the language, they aren’t likely to be able to use it much in their everyday lives. Every year the village holds a festival to celebrate kuş dili, but this year it focused mostly on other aspects of local culture, like food and dancing.

Even if the language is now unnecessary, some villagers are committed to keeping it alive. Rıfat Köçek ‘s told the Atlantic, “[W]e need to keep the language alive out of respect to our ancestors. They created it, and they never knew that one day it could make us famous.”

It remains to be seen if it will be possible to keep “bird language” alive. If the example of the Canary Islands’ Silbo Gomero (a whistled version of Spanish) tells us anything, preservation efforts may need to be moved into the schools to truly be effective…though it’s hard to say how effective that would be if all of the young adults continue to migrate into the cities.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by jerine

What This Rare Whistling Language Tells Us About the Brain

A new study of a whistling language is  changing what scientists thought they new about how the brain processes speech.

You know how to whistle, don’t you? Not like this, you don’t…unless of course, you happen to have been raised in the tiny Turkish town of Kuşköy. Here, steep mountains and deep valleys divide villagers. For centuries, a whistled language called kuş dili, or “bird language,” connected them, echoing over the rough terrain.

Whistled sound travels further than speech, so this unusual adaptation made it easier for villagers to keep in touch, As Onur Güntürkün, the lead author of a new study on kuş dili, explained to Ars Technica:

“When you’re living there, you recognise why it’s a good landscape for whistled Turkish. It’s a very mountainous region, very steep with deep valleys, and to communicate with your neighbours, you have to climb down and up again.”

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Laz Language on Decline in Turkey

Turkish is the only official language of Turkey, but it is far from the only language spoken there. Unfortunately, many of the minority languages are on the decline. Some, like the Laz language, are slowly but surely moving toward extinction.

Laz is a South Caucasian language that is spoken by anywhere from 200,000 to just 30,000 people in Turkey. The Laz are the descendents of the ancient Colchis empire, where Jason and the Argonauts went hunting for the Golden Fleece.  Now, this ancient language appears to be declining. In school, children are taught in Turkish as required by law, and they speak the Laz language less and less outside of it.

In a recent story, Al Jazeera quoted Laz linguist Ismail Bucaklisi, who helped put together the first Laz dictionary. He describes when he first realized that the language was in trouble:

“The moment when I realised the Laz language was endangered was when I went back home from Istanbul a year or two after I started university, and saw that children were no longer speaking Laz. The Laz language was not taught to them and they were spoken to in Turkish…When I asked people why they spoke in Turkish to their young children – when my generation used to speak in Laz to us – they said that there was no reason, it was a reflex.”

With no public support for the language from the Turkish government, it remains to be seen if the Laz revival that Bucaklisi imagines will come to pass. Here’s what he thinks needs to happen first:

“Prominent Laz people in society, social actors should resume using the language, so that Laz people understand that their language is important, meaningful, and precious.”