Turkish “Bird Language” Falling Silent

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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