A Conversation of Whistles

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

Steep hills surround the village of Kuskoy. Some villagers here can still understand the old “bird language,” a form of whistled Turkish used to communicate across these deep valleys. PHOTO: Peter Kenyon/NPR

Is it always necessary to use words to communicate? Theoretically, there’s verbal communication and its non-verbal counterpart of body language, gestures, and the like. What if the communication is to pass over valleys and hills – spontaneously? Then, a whistled language – with its origin in bird calls – is the answer. Ask the “bird whistlers”.

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.”

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.”

Read on how the language is connected to brain functions, here.

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