Cellphones Are Silencing the 'Bird Languages' of Northern Turkey

man using a whistled language
Excuse me, can you repeat that? Residents in a small Turkish village use whistled 'bird language' not to communicate with their avian friends but with each other. .

UNESCO / YouTube Screencapture

Sure, the idea of shouting something from a mountaintop sounds mighty commanding. But the reality of constantly hooting and hollering across great expanses of mountainous terrain is, well, exhausting and mostly impractical.

The uselessness of constant, long-distance yelling is why the residents of some remote and largely undeveloped locales have chosen to whistle from the mountaintops — and pretty much everywhere else — instead.

Relatively rare instances of whistled languages, which are largely used to complement spoken languages, have existed across nearly all corners of the globe from Spain's Canary Islands to far-flung Greek villages to the lush rainforests of Bolivia. But one of the best-known examples of a place where the primary mode of outdoor communication involves whistles, warbles, chirps, trills, shrieks, and piercing noises just like the one your over-enthused dad makes with his fingers at football games is located in the rural Turkish province of Giresun.

Take a listen:

As the BBC reports, whistled language was commonplace across large swaths of the country's Black Sea-abutting northern regions as recently as five decades ago. Today, Turkey's so-called "bird language," or kus dili, is mostly limited to roughly 10,000 people living in hazelnut-producing Giresun and the mountainous farming villages of the Çanakçı district including, most famously, Kuskoy, which literally means "Village of the Birds."

Already mostly wiped-out in neighboring provinces, there are concerns that the whistling tongue passed on from generation to generation and used on a daily basis by the villagers of Kuskoy is also on its way to becoming extinct.

The reason? Cellphones.

Recently added to UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, Turkish bird-speak joins Portuguese cowbell manufacturing and Mongolian calligraphy as just one of the dozens of long-held cultural traditions identified by the United Nations as being under threat and in need of protection. In 2017 alone, five safeguard-worthy examples of intangible cultural heritage — think: "living" heritage such as oral traditions, rituals, social practices, crafts, dance, music, and culinary preparations — were added to the list alongside whistled language including Colombian-Venezuelan llano work songs, a Moroccan martial arts dance called Taskiwin and traditional poetry recitals once common in the United Arab Emirates.

A cultural heritage-killing modern convenience

The threat posed by cellphones to the twittering bird language that fills the air in Kuskoy is both obvious and inevitable.

Younger generations, eager to embrace new technology and take advantage of the mobile coverage that's slowly expanding into once un-coverable regions, have found whistling across deep valleys — as is custom — antiquated and a touch unnecessary. While whistling was once the only way to effectively communicate in this rugged landscape, cellphones now offer cultural heritage-killing convenience. Why whistle yourself into exhaustion when you can just as easily make a call or text? Why communicate like your elders when you communicate like the rest of the world?

Writes UNESCO:

The communities concerned consider this practice to be a key reflection of their cultural identity, which reinforces interpersonal communication and solidarity. Although the community is aware of the importance of this practice, technological developments and socioeconomic changes have led to a decline in the number of practitioners and areas where it is spoken. One of the key threats to the practice is the use of mobile phones. The new generation's interest in whistled language has diminished considerably and there is a risk that the element will be gradually torn from its natural environment, becoming an artificial practice.

While it's easy to lament the slow death of table etiquette and face-to-face human interaction as we become more and more (co)-dependent on our devices, it's trickier to comprehend the potential extinction of a complex form of communication — a bona fide language — due to cellphone usage.

Giresun province, Turkey
In remote landscapes such as the ones that dominate Turkey's Giresun province, sometimes the easiest way to communicate across long distances is not by screaming, yelling or clanging a bell but by whistling. 14458 / Flickr

While there's understandable concern that younger generations will trade whistling for texting when communicating outdoors, communities like Kuskoy have, according to UNESCO, become proactive in promoting whistled language on both a national and international basis to ensure it doesn't devolve into a touristic sideshow attraction or disappear altogether. What's more, ... "whistled language is still transmitted from generation to generation in the context of parent-child relations through both formal and informal methods," writes the agency.

As reported by the Hurriyet Daily News, Kuskoy hosted the first annual Bird Language Festival in 1997; whistled language has also been offered at primary schools in the Çanakçı district for the past three years.

"Whistled language, also known as bird language, which has echoed in the eastern Black Sea region for centuries, has entered the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding of UNESCO," Turkey's Culture Minister Numan Kurtulmuş tweeted in response to inclusion on the list, which, in the end, shouldn't be viewed necessarily death knell but a call to arms — the recognition of something incredibly special that just happens to be under threat. "I congratulate my fellow Black Sea locals who have kept this culture alive."

Whistled language = a busy brain

To be clear, the bird language used in Kuskoy and environs isn't its own unique language. It's basic Turkish in which spoken syllables have been replaced with whistled tones. As odd as it may sound, its practitioners are simply whistling in Turkish.

A 2015 New Yorker article on Turkish bird language elaborates: "The phrase ‘Do you have fresh bread?' which in Turkish is ‘Taze ekmek var mı?' becomes, in bird language, six separate whistles made with the tongue, teeth, and fingers."

The science behind this unusual form of whistled communication has, not surprisingly, fascinated linguists and researchers from across the globe including Onur Gunturkun, a Turkish-German bio-psychologist specializing in brain asymmetry research.

Research into the field has proven that the left hemisphere of the human brain processes language while the right hemisphere handles the melody, pitch, and rhythm — music, basically. So then, which of your brain's hemispheres processes language that is music?

Sign for Kuskoy, Turkey
Acknowledging that its ages-old bird language is under threat, the village of Kuskoy has made strides in keeping the tradition alive. UNESCO / YouTube Screencapture

Acknowledging that whistle-based communication is under threat, the village of Kuskoy has made strides in keeping the tradition alive. Among other things, it hosts an annual bird language festival. (Screenshot: UNESCO/YouTube)

Through a study conducted with 31 proudly whistling villagers of Kuskoy, Gunturkun found that participants used both hemispheres of the brain when comprehending whistled language, not one or the other.

"So in the end, there was a balanced contribution of both hemispheres," Gunturkun explained following the study, which involved placing volunteers in headphones and playing different pairs of spoken syllables and the whistled equivalents, one in each ear. With the spoken syllables, volunteers only heard the one played in the right ear, which is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. When the different whistles were played into each ear, volunteers comprehended both of them. "So indeed, depending on the way we speak, the hemispheres have a different share of work in language processing," concludes Gunturkun.

In addition to the Turkish bird language and other fresh inclusions on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, UNESCO also revealed new additions to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which bestows World Heritage Site-Esque recognition and protection to unique cultural traditions. This year, UNESCO recognized over 30 examples of intangible cultural heritage including traditional Dutch windmill maintenance and operation, a specific type of Irish bagpiping, and, thanks to a strong push from the Italian government, Neapolitan pizza-making.