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:

The Fas­ci­nat­ing Whis­tled Lan­guages of the Canary Islands, Turkey & Mex­i­co (and What They Say About the Human Brain)

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

How Lan­guages Evolve: Explained in a Win­ning TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

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


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