In A Turkish Village, A Conversation With Whistles, Not Words

In A Turkish Village, A Conversation With Whistles, Not Words

1:51pm Sep 29, 2015
Nazmiye Cakir, a 60-year-old "bird whistler," learned the whistled language from her grandparents, and still uses it. "The one thing you don't whistle about is your love talk," she says with a laugh, "because you'll get caught!"
Nazmiye Cakir, a 60-year-old "bird whistler," learned the whistled language from her grandparents, and still uses it. "The one thing you don't whistle about is your love talk," she says with a laugh, "because you'll get caught!"
Gokce Saracoglu / for NPR
  • Nazmiye Cakir, a 60-year-old "bird whistler," learned the whistled language from her grandparents, and still uses it. "The one thing you don't whistle about is your love talk," she says with a laugh, "because you'll get caught!"

    Nazmiye Cakir, a 60-year-old "bird whistler," learned the whistled language from her grandparents, and still uses it. "The one thing you don't whistle about is your love talk," she says with a laugh, "because you'll get caught!"

    Gokce Saracoglu / for NPR

  • Steep hills surround the village of Kuskoy, high in the mountains above Turkey's Black Sea coast. Some villagers here can still understand the old "bird language," a form of whistled Turkish used to communicate across these deep valleys.

    Steep hills surround the village of Kuskoy, high in the mountains above Turkey's Black Sea coast. Some villagers here can still understand the old "bird language," a form of whistled Turkish used to communicate across these deep valleys.

    Peter Kenyon / NPR

  • Halil Cindik, head of the Kuskoy Bird Language Association, demonstrates his technique for whistling Turkish words and phrases. The piercing tones can be heard a mile or more away, depending on conditions. Cindik says an annual festival is helping to keep

    Halil Cindik, head of the Kuskoy Bird Language Association, demonstrates his technique for whistling Turkish words and phrases. The piercing tones can be heard a mile or more away, depending on conditions. Cindik says an annual festival is helping to keep

    Peter Kenyon / NPR

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.

Everyone we met in Kuskoy was warm, welcoming and very generous. But when our meeting with Nazmiye Cakir, 60, was interrupted by an eruption of gunfire from across the valley, our hosts smiled reassuringly and paused, as if waiting for more. Sure enough, a few seconds later came an even louder volley – a response from our side of the mountain.

Once that bit of nonverbal communication died down, Cakir explained how she learned to whistle Turkish. She says her grandparents often took care of her when she was young, and they passed it on.

"You might need to ask one of your neighbors, 'Can you help me harvest the corn tomorrow?' Or something like that," she says. "Or, if there's a funeral, the family would whistle the news throughout the valley."

Halil Cindik, head of the Kuskoy Bird Language Association, demonstrates his technique for whistling Turkish words and phrases. The piercing tones can be heard a mile or more away, depending on conditions. Cindik says an annual festival is helping to keep the whistled language alive, but the spread of cellphones is causing villagers to abandon it.

Halil Cindik, head of the Kuskoy Bird Language Association, demonstrates his technique for whistling Turkish words and phrases. The piercing tones can be heard a mile or more away, depending on conditions. Cindik says an annual festival is helping to keep the whistled language alive, but the spread of cellphones is causing villagers to abandon it.

Peter Kenyon/NPR

Don't Whistle Your 'Love Talk'

A cheerful, talkative woman, Cakir also explains what you can't talk about when you're whistling.

"The only thing you never whistle is your love talk," she says, laughing. "Because you'll get caught!"

After Cakir demonstrates her whistling chops with some complex phrases, two other villagers devise a test to show that this isn't some kind of prearranged code, but an actual language.

One villager is given a phone number from Istanbul that neither man has seen before. He whistles it to the second man, Halil Cindik, the head of the Kuskoy Bird Language Association. Cindik dials the number that's been whistled to him, and it's right.

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.

So how does the brain process a language in which syllables are rendered as whistled tones instead of spoken words?

Nazmiye Cakir, a 60-year-old

Nazmiye Cakir, a 60-year-old "bird whistler," learned the whistled language from her grandparents, and still uses it. "The one thing you don't whistle about is your love talk," she says with a laugh, "because you'll get caught!"

Gokce Saracoglu/for NPR

Conducting A Field Test

Gunturkun went to Kuskoy to do a field test.

It involved testing villagers using headphones and recorded Turkish, both spoken syllables and their whistled equivalents.

With the spoken syllables, the villagers responded much as other subjects have in similar tests: if you play two different syllables, one in the left ear and one in the right, people tend to hear only the one played to the right ear, which is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain.

But Gunturkun found that when he played whistled syllables, the villagers tended to hear both of them, suggesting that they were using both hemispheres of their brain to a much greater extent.

"So in the end, there was a balanced contribution of both hemispheres," says Gunturkun. "So indeed, depending on the way we speak, the hemispheres have a different share of work in language processing."

It's not clear if Gunturkun's work will lead to real-life applications, but he wonders if a whistled language might be helpful to, say, a stroke victim with left hemisphere damage who has difficulty processing spoken language.

The spread of cellphones has reduced the need for whistling, but villagers stage a festival each summer to try to keep it alive.

And as some rather sheepishly admit, it still comes in handy - to warn their gun-toting neighbors when the police are on patrol.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We take you now to the remote mountainside of Turkey's Black Sea coast. To this day, villagers communicate with each other by whistling across the steep valleys, not just whistling a nonverbal kind of, hey, you or B.J. Leiderman writes our theme music, but actually speaking whistled Turkish.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

SIMON: Believe it or not, that's the name of our current president, Barack Hussein Obama. NPR's Peter Kenyon takes us to meet some of the bird whistlers of Kuskoy.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Turkish hill country above the Black Sea is lush, misty, forested territory. As for the residents, everyone we met in the village of Kuskoy was warm, welcoming and very generous. But there were moments when you could see why other Turks consider these mountain villagers eccentric.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KENYON: A volley of gunfire echoes from across the valley, and as our hosts tell us not to worry, they exchange glances that suggest there may be more to come. Sure enough, a few seconds later someone on this side of the valley responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KENYON: With that bit of nonverbal expression out of the way, 60-year-old Nazmiye Cakir resumes telling us how she learned to whistle Turkish. Cakir says her grandparents often took care of her she was young, and they passed it on.

NAZMIYE CAKIR: (Through interpreter) You might need to ask one of your neighbors can you help me harvest the corn tomorrow, or something like that. Or, if there's a funeral, the family would whistle the news throughout the valley.

KENYON: A cheerful, talkative woman, Cakir also explains what you can't talk about when you're whistling.

CAKIR: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: The only thing you never whistle is your love talk, she says, because you'll get caught.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

KENYON: After Cakir demonstrates her whistling chops, two other villagers devise a test to show that this isn't some kind of prearranged code but an actual language. This is a phone number that we show to one villager, who whistles it to another man, who then calls the number and it rings. There are other whistled languages in the world, one in the Canary Islands for instance. But the whistling in Turkish excited the interest of a Turkish-German bio-psychologist, Onur Gunturkun.

ONUR GUNTURKUN: I was absolute utterly fascinated when I first heard about it. And I directly saw the relevance of this language for science.

KENYON: Gunturkun has been working on brain asymmetry research. Spoken language is processed by the left hemisphere and music by the right. I'm simplifying a bit, there is some overlap, but basically they're seen as separate. So how does the brain process a language - in this case Turkish - in which syllables are rendered as whistled tones instead of spoken words? Gunturkun went to Kuskoy to do a field test and found that the villagers who listened to whistled Turkish were using both hemispheres of their brain to a much greater extent.

GUNTURKUN: So in the end, there was a balanced contribution of both hemispheres. So indeed, depending on the way we speak, the hemispheres have a different share of work in language processing.

KENYON: Although he's mainly interested in pure brain research, Gunturkun wonders if a whistled language might be helpful to, say, a stroke victim with left hemisphere damage who has difficulty processing spoken language.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

KENYON: The spread of cellphones has reduced the need for whistling, but villagers stage a festival each summer to keep it alive. And as some rather sheepishly admit, it still comes in handy to warn their gun-toting neighbors when the police are on patrol. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Kuskoy, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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