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.”

In whistled Turkish, the sounds of spoken Turkish are approximated in whistles, along with contextual information like pitch and intonation.  According to Güntürkün’s study, it’s handled differently by the brain than spoken Turkish. Language is processed primarily by the left side of the brain; the right side is primarily responsible for processing music.  So what about whistled speech, with its musical elements? Scientists had assumed it was processed mainly by the left side, like other language functions, but Güntürkün’s study indicates listeners use both sides of their brains to understand it.

The study tested 31 whistlers by playing them bits of both spoken Turkish and whistled Turkish through headphones. Without access to an MRI machine, Güntürkün had to rely on a technique called “dichotic listening,” which means he played different syllables in each ear to see which syllable the listeners would be able to identify. If the subject identified the syllable played in the right ear, it was assumed that the left side of the brain was responsible for processing it.

The results? With spoken Turkish, listeners identified the spoken Turkish syllables played in the right ear about 75 percent of the time. For whistled Turkish, it was half and half, a significant difference that indicates the right hemisphere of the brain is just as important in understanding whistled Turkish as the left side.

What Does It Mean?

Ideally, other scientists would like to see these findings confirmed by a brain scan, but the remoteness of groups who use whistling languages may make that difficult. If confirmed, this study will not only advance our knowledge of how the brain works, but it could also help stroke victims in the future, according to Ars Technica:

Güntürkün has an idea for future research that’s exciting but also possibly a pipe dream. He told Ars he’d like to see whether this finding has an application for stroke victims. People who’ve suffered a left-hemisphere stroke can lose their language abilities to a devastating extent. If whistled languages lean more heavily on the right hemisphere, it’s possible that speakers of whistled languages who suffer left-hemisphere strokes might still be able to communicate by whistling. And if this is the case, it means that maybe changing the form of language for all left-hemisphere stroke victims could have some success.

This study also provides one answer to the question, “Why bother trying to save endangered languages?” They are worth saving for a number of different reasons, but one reason is because they can teach us things about how language works, and about how human beings work.

Unfortunately, whistled Turkish is most likely dying.  Children used to grow up learning it effortlessly, as part of village life. According to the New Yorker, in the 1960s “both men and women regularly gossiped, argued, and even courted via whistle. ” Now, people are moving toward using cell phones instead, which are perhaps better suited to gossiping, arguing and courting.  According to Güntürkün,

“You can’t gossip with whistled Turkish. If you want to have a private conversation, it’s better to use the phone.”

Dr. Güntürkün told the New York Times that there could be anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 people using the language today. If it’s not passed down, though, extinction is inevitable.

As a side note, whistled Turkish isn’t the only whistling language. There are other examples scattered throughout the world, in places where rough terrain makes it difficult to communicate. Perhaps the most famous is Silbo Gomero, a whistled form of Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands that UNESCO has recognized as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Hopefully, it will fare better than whistled Turkish, as it has been made part of the school curriculum there.

Here’s a video of two people using whistled Turkish to speak to each other from opposite sides of a valley, with a translation included.

Isn’t that amazing?

Can you whistle? Do you think you would be able to learn a whistling language? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit:  © Clearvista | Dreamstime.comMan Whistling And Waving. Photo

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