Discover the Disappearing Turkish Language That is Whistled, Not Spoken

We so often privilege individuals as the primary drivers of innovation. But what if technology is also self-organizing, developing as an evolutionary response to the environment? If we think of whistled language as a kind of technology, we have an excellent example of this self-organizing principle in the 42 documented whistled languages around the world.

As we noted in a previous post, reports of whistled languages go back hundreds of years in cultures that would have had no contact with each other: Oaxaca, Mexico, northern Africa’s Atlas Mountains, the Brazilian Amazon, northern Laos, and the Canary Islands.




These are “places with steep terrain or dense forests,” writes Michelle Nijhuis at The New Yorker, “where it might otherwise be hard to communicate at a distance.” Such is the case in the village of Kuşköy, in “the remote mountains of northern Turkey,” notes Great Big Story:

“For three centuries” farmers there “have communicated great distances by whistling. It’s a language called kuş dili that is still used to this day, though fewer people are learning it in the age of the cell phone.” Also called “bird language” by locals, “for obvious reasons,” this system of vocal telephony, like all other examples, is based on actual speech. Nijhuis explains:

Kuşköy’s version [of whistled language] adapts standard Turkish syllables into piercing tones that can be heard from more than half a mile away. 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 method may be avian, but the messages are human, albeit in simplified language for ease of transmission. In the video above Muazzez Köçek, Kuşköy’s best whistler, shows how she translates Turkish vocabulary into melodies—turning words into music, an act of coding without a computer.

That this bio-technological feat arose spontaneously to solve the same problem the world over shows how us how humans collectively problem-solve. But of course, individualism has its advantages. Despite the huge amount of data they gather on us, modern communications technologies have met one particular human need.

In Kuşköy, "bird language is rapidly disappearing from daily life," writes Nijhuis. "In a small town filled with nosy neighbors, texting affords a level of privacy that whistling never did."

Related Content:

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Speaking in Whistles: The Whistled Language of Oaxaca, Mexico

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

A common joke has Americans overawed by people with British accents. It’s funny because it’s partly true; Yanks can grant undue authority to people who sound like Sir David Attenborough or Benedict Cumberbatch. But in these cases, what we generically call a British accent should more accurately be referred to as “Received Pronunciation” (or RP), the speech of BBC presenters and educated Brits from certain middle- and upper-class areas in Southern England. (If you like Received Pronunciation, you’re going to love “posh” Upper RP.) Received Pronunciation is only one of many British accents, as comedian Siobhan Thompson shows, most of which we’re unlikely to hear narrating nature documentaries.

RP is also sometimes called “the Shakespeare accent,” for its association with famous thespians like John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, or Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But as we’ve previously noted in a post on the work of linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, the English of Shakespeare’s day sounded nothing like what we typically hear on stage and screen.




What linguists call “Original Pronunciation” (OP), the actual Shakespeare accent, had a flavor all its own, likely combining, to our modern ears, “flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent,” as Ben Crystal tells NPR, “and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.”

You can see the Crystals explain and demonstrate the accent in the video above, and make sense of many Shakespearean puns that only work in OP. And in the animated video at the top of the post, get a whirlwind tour from Chaucer’s Middle English to Shakespeare’s Early Modern variety. Along the way, you’ll learn why the spelling of English words—both American and British—is so confusing and irregular. (“Knight,” for example, which makes no sense when pronounced as nite, was once pronounced much more phonetically.) The range of regional accents produced a bedlam of variant spellings, which took a few hundred years to standardize during some intense spelling debates.

You’ll get an introduction to the first English printer, William Caxton, and the “Great Vowel Shift” which changed the language’s sound dramatically over the course of a couple hundred years. Once we get to Shakespeare and his “Original Pronunciation,” we can see how rhymes that don’t scan for us sounded just right to Elizabethan ears. These lost rhymes provide a significant clue for linguists who reconstruct OP, as does meter and the survival of older pronunciations in certain dialects.

When the Crystals brought their reconstruction of Shakespeare’s English to the stage in hugely popular productions at the Globe Theatre, members of the audience all heard something slightly different—their many different dialects reflected back at them. Listen for all the various kinds of English above in Ben Crystal's recitation of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech in Original Pronunciation.

Related Content:

Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

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Hear What Hamlet, Richard III & King Lear Sounded Like in Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

What did Shakespeare’s English sound like to Shakespeare? To his audience? And how can we know such a thing as the phonetic character of the language spoken 400 years ago? These questions and more are addressed in the video above, which profiles a very popular experiment at London’s Globe Theatre, the 1994 reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theatrical home. As linguist David Crystal explains, the theater’s purpose has always been to recapture as much as possible the original look and feel of a Shakespearean production—costuming, music, movement, etc. But until recently, the Globe felt that attempting a play in the original pronunciation would alienate audiences. The opposite proved to be true, and people clamored for more. Above, Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, demonstrate to us what certain Shakespearean passages would have sounded like to their first audiences, and in so doing draw out some subtle wordplay that gets lost on modern tongues.




Shakespeare’s English is called by scholars Early Modern English (not, as many students say, “Old English,” an entirely different, and much older language). Crystal dates his Shakespearean early modern to around 1600. (In his excellent textbook on the subject, linguist Charles Barber bookends the period roughly between 1500 and 1700.) David Crystal cites three important kinds of evidence that guide us toward recovering early modern’s original pronunciation (or “OP”).

1. Observations made by people writing on the language at the time, commenting on how words sounded, which words rhyme, etc. Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson tells us, for example, that speakers of English in his time and place pronounced the "R" (a feature known as “rhoticity”). Since, as Crystal points out, the language was evolving rapidly, and there wasn't only one kind of OP, there is a great deal of contemporary commentary on this evolution, which early modern writers like Jonson had the chance to observe firsthand.

2. Spellings. Unlike today’s very frustrating tension between spelling and pronunciation, Early Modern English tended to be much more phonetic and words were pronounced much more like they were spelled, or vice versa (though spelling was very irregular, a clue to the wide variety of regional accents).

3. Rhymes and puns which only work in OP. The Crystals demonstrate the important pun between “loins” and “lines” (as in genealogical lines) in Romeo and Juliet, which is completely lost in so-called “Received Pronunciation” (or "proper" British English). Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the father and son team claim, have rhymes that only work in OP.

Not everyone agrees on what Shakespeare's OP might have sounded like. Eminent Shakespeare director Trevor Nunn claims that it might have sounded more like American English does today, suggesting that the language that migrated across the pond retained more Elizabethan characteristics than the one that stayed home.

You can hear an example of this kind of OP in the recording from Romeo and Juliet above. Shakespeare scholar John Barton suggests that OP would have sounded more like modern Irish, Yorkshire, and West Country pronunciations, an accent that the Crystals seem to favor in their interpretations of OP and is much more evident in the reading from Macbeth below (both audio examples are from a CD curated by Ben Crystal).

Whatever the conjecture, scholars tend to use the same set of criteria David Crystal outlines. I recall my own experience with Early Modern English pronunciation in an intensive graduate course on the history of the English language. Hearing a class of amateur linguists read familiar Shakespeare passages in what we perceived as OP—using our phonological knowledge and David Crystal’s criteria—had exactly the effect Ben Crystal described in an NPR interview:

If there's something about this accent, rather than it being difficult or more difficult for people to understand ... it has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too. It's a sound that makes people — it reminds people of the accent of their home — and so they tend to listen more with their heart than their head.

In other words, despite the strangeness of the accent, the language can sometimes feel more immediate, more universal, and more of the moment, even, than the sometimes stilted, pretentious ways of reading Shakespeare in the accent of a modern London stage actor or BBC news anchor.

For more on this subject, don't miss this related post: Hear What Hamlet, Richard III & King Lear Sounded Like in Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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