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.
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.
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.”
Gunturkun has been working on brain asymmetry research, which holds among other things, that spoken language is mainly processed by the left hemisphere of the brain, and music by the right. There is some overlap – when it comes to recognizing tones of voice, for instance – but basically they’re seen as separate.
They call it the “bird language” or “kuș dili” as it originated in Kuşköy, which itself means “bird village”. This fascinating means of communication was created over 400 years ago as a consequence of working in the fields of the Pontic Mountains. The terrain is irregular making travelling very difficult even on short distances, and because of this, the villagers felt the need for an alternative to speaking and shouting , one that made long distance communication easier.
Inspired by the songs of birds, they started whistling the syllables of Turkish words which proved to be much more effective and less energy-consuming than yelling or walking all the way to the person they needed to speak with. Villagers notify each other about visitors, ask for help and make invitations for tea. They can even have complex, long conversations just by whistling. The songs of the bird people resonate over distances as long as 1km. If the distance is longer, the neighbors are kind enough to pass on the message to each other until it reaches its destination.
Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? Exactly like the call of a bird!