Download 280 Pictographs That Put Japanese Culture Into a New Visual Language: They’re Free for the Public to Use

“One of the biggest considerations when traveling to Japan is its inscrutable language,” writes Designboom’s Juliana Neira. But then, one might also consider making that language more scrutable — and making one’s experience in Japan much richer — by learning some of it. Kanji, the Chinese characters used in the written Japanese language, may at first look like small, often bewilderingly complex pictures, and many assume they visually evoke the meanings they express. In fact, to use the linguistic terms, they’re not pictograms, representations of thoughts or ideas, but logograms, representations of words or parts of words.

Resemble miniature works of art though they often do, kanji aren’t entirely unsystematic. This helps beginning learners get a handle on the first and most essential characters of the thousands they’ll eventually need to know.




So does the fact that some of them, in origin, really are pictographic — that is, they look like the meaning of the word they represent — or at least pictographic enough to make them teachable through images. The Japanese word for “mountain,” to cite an elementary example, is 山; “river” is 川; “tree” is 木. Alas, most of us who enjoy the 山, 川, and 木 of Japan — to say nothing of the 書店 and 喫茶店 in its cities — haven’t been able to visit them at all in this past pandemic year.

“After experiencing years of tourism growth, tourists to Japan are down over 95% due to the pandemic,” writes Spoon & Tamago’s Johnny Waldman. “Graphic designer Kenya Hara and his firm Nippon Design Center have self-initiated a project to release over 250 pictograms — free for anyone to use — in support of tourism in Japan from a visual design perspective.” Collectively bannered the Experience Japan Pictograms, these clear and evocative icons represent a wide range of the places and activities one can enjoy in the Land of the Rising Sun: skiing and surfing, calligraphy and open-air hot-spring bathing, Ginza and Asakusa, Tokyo’s Skytree and Osaka’s Tsūtenkaku Tower.

The Experience Japan Pictograms hardly fail to include the glories of Japanese cuisine — sushi, tempura, soba, and even the Japanified hanbāgā — which piques so many foreigners’ interest in Japan to begin with. Click on any of them and you’ll see a brief cultural and historical explanation of the item, activity, place, or concept in question, along with the relevant Japanese term (in kanji where applicable) and its pronunciation. You can also download them in the color scheme of your choice and use them for any purposes you like, including commercial ones. The more widely adopted they are, the more convenient Japanese tourism will become for those who don’t read Japanese. Those who do can hardly deny the pleasure of having another Japanese language to learn — and a truly pictographic one at that.

via Spoon & Tamago

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Tour of U.S. Accents: Bostonian, Philadelphese, Gullah Creole & Other Intriguing Dialects

You don’t have an accent — or rather, everyone has an accent, but we don’t notice our own, especially if we associate mostly with people of similar cultural backgrounds. For however we might like to describe ourselves, the way we speak reveals who we are: as dialect coach Erik Singer puts it in the Wired video above, “Accent is identity.” Among the forces shaping that identity he names not just geography but socioeconomic background, generation, ethnicity and race, and other “individual factors.”  The result is that a large and varied continent like North America has given rise to a wide variety of accents in the English language alone.

In the video Singer and four other specialist language experts demonstrate a great many of these North American accents, identifying the most distinctive characteristics of each. The classic Boston accent, for example, is “non-rhotic,” referring to the dropping of “R” sounds that make possible such classic phrases as “pahk yah cah in Havahd Yard.” It differs in many ways from those common in places like Rhode Island and New York City, relatively close together though all three areas may seem: the diversity of accents on the U.S. east coast versus its more recently settled west coast underscores the fact that regional accents need time, usually a matter of generation upon generation, to emerge.




The way Philadelphians talk illustrates what Singer calls “the ‘on’ line,” north of which most pronounce “on” as if it rhymes with “don,” and south of which — Philly and below — most pronounce “on” as if rhymes with “dawn.” You don’t even have to cross the Pennsylvania border to find another unique accent. Only in Pittsburgh do people “smooth the ‘mouth’ dipthong,” a dipthong being a syllable composed of two distinct vowels — here, the “ou” in “mouth” — the “smoothing out” of which turns it into a single (and to non-Pittsburghers, unusual-sounding) vowel.

By the end of these 20 minutes, Singer and his crew have made it only as far as the “Piney Woods Belt” of the American south, whose accents bring to many of our minds the voice of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. They’ve also touched on such linguistic curiosities as Gullah creole; the Elizabethan inflection of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina,” previously featured here on Open Culture; and in some ways the most curious of all, the broadly designated “general American” speech that has emerged in recent decades. This is only the first video of a series [update: it’s now available below], so keep an eye on Wired‘s Youtube channel for the next installment of the linguistic journey — and keep an ear out for all the subtle varieties of English you can catch in the meantime.

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Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch 36 Short Animations That Tell the Origin Stories of Mexico’s Indigenous Peoples in Their Own Languages

In our efforts to preserve endangered species we seem to overlook something equally important. To me it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.

 – Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

Trees and whales aside, we suspect the ever quotable Herzog would warm to fellow director Gabriela Badillo’s 68 Voices, 68 Hearts, a series of one-minute animations that preserve indigenous Mexican stories with narration provided by native speakers.

“It was created in order to help foster pride, respect, and the use of indigenous Mexican languages between speakers and non-speakers, as well as to help reduce discrimination and foster a sense of pride towards all communities and cultures that are part of the cultural richness that makes up Mexico,” Badillo says in an interview with Awasqa.




The project stemmed from a realization in the wake of the death of her grandfather, a Maxcanu from Yucatan:

Aside from losing a loved one, I realized that an enormous wisdom had also been lost: a language, stories, traditions and customs, a whole world had dissolved with him.

Each animation involves collaboration with the National Institute of Indigenous Language and the community whose story is being shared. Community members choose the subject, then supply narration and translation. Their children draw scenes from the selected story, which steers the style of animation.

Prior to being released to the general public, each film is presented to its community of origin, along with a booklet of suggested educational activities for parents and teachers to use in conjunction with screenings. Boxes of postcards featuring artwork from the series are donated to the community school.

Some of the entries, like the above About Earthquakes and the Origin of Life on Earth, narrated in Ch’ol by Eugenia Cruz Montejo, pack a massive amount of story into the allotted minute:

They say many years ago Ch’ujtiat, the Heaven’s lord, created the Earth with 12 immortal men to carry it. And it is when they get tired that the Earth moves, provoking earthquakes.

At the same time he created the first men, who were ungrateful, so Ch’ujtiat sent the flood and turned the survivors into monkeys, and the innocent children into stars. He then created our first parents, na’al, Ixic y Xun’Ok, who multiplied and populated the Earth. 

That’s how life on Earth began.That’s how the Ch’oles tell it.

Variants of “that’s how we tell it” are a common refrain, as in the Cora (also known as Náayeri) story of how the Mother Goddess created earth (and other gods), narrated by Pedro Muñiz López.

Here is the written version, in Cora:

E’itɨ tiuséijre cháanaka

Yaapú ti’nyúukari tɨkɨn a’najpú ɨtyáj náimi ajnáana Náasisaa, Téijkame jemín ɨ cháanaka ajtá ɨ máxkɨrai, góutaaguaka’a ɨ tabóujsimua yaati’xáata tɨkɨn mata’a já guatéchaɨn majtá tyuipuán iyakúi cháanaka japuá.

Muxáj kɨmenpú góutaaguaka’a tɨ’kí nájkɨ’ta gojoutyájtua. Áuna me’séira aɨjme taboujsimua matákua’naxɨ.

Tɨ’kí aɨjna tanáana Náasisaa, ukɨpuapú guatákɨɨnitya’a, yán guajaikagua’xɨjre uyóujmua matɨ’jmí jetsán guatyáakɨ yán miye’ntiné tajapuá. Kapú aɨn jé’i, matákua’naxɨ máj akábibɨɨ yán juté’e, makaupɨxɨɨ ujetsé matɨ’jmí chuéj kɨj tentyóu metya’úrara, ajtá ɨ Taja’as xu’rabe’táana tiuɨrɨj tyautyájtua ajpúi tanáana Náasisaa tsíikɨri guatyákɨstaka ukɨpuá kɨmen. Japuanpú aɨjna chuéj utíajka tɨ’kí goutaíjte aɨjme tabóujsimua guatáijte máj atapa’tsaren metya’tanya’tɨkɨ’káa ayaapú tiutéjbe máj tiunéitan.

Ayaapú tiuséijre cháanaka. Ayáj tigua’nyúukari Náayeri.

Badillo’s educational mission is well served by one of our favorites, The Origin of the Mountains. In addition to mountains, this Cucapá story, narrated by Inocencia González Sainz, delves into the origin of oceans and the Colorado River, though fair warning—it may be difficult to restore classroom order once the students hear that testicles and earwax figure prominently.

To watch a playlist of the 36 animations completed so far with English subtitles, click here.

68 Voices, 68 Heart’s Kickstarter page has more information about this ongoing project. Contributions will go toward animating stories in the three languages that are at the highest risk of disappearing—AkatekoPopoloca, and Ku’ahl.

As Badillo writes:

When a language disappears, not only a sound, a way of writing, a letter or a word goes away. Something much deeper than just a form of communication disappears – a way of seeing and conceiving the world, stories, tales, a way of naming and relating to things, an enormous knowledge that we should relearn because of its deep respect with nature.

via Boing Boing

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Speak: Watch the Lecture on Effective Communication That Became an MIT Tradition for Over 40 Years

In his legendary MIT lecture “How to Speak,” professor Patrick Winston opens with a story about seeing Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton at a Celebrity Ski Weekend. It was immediately clear to him that he was the better skier, but not because he had more innate athletic ability than an Olympic gold medalist, but because he had more knowledge and practice. These, Winston says, are the key qualities we need to become better communicators. Inherent talent helps, he says, but “notice that the T is very small. What really matters is what you know.”

What some of us know about communicating effectively could fill a greeting card, but it’s hardly our fault, says Winston. Schools that send students into the world without the ability to speak and write well are as criminally liable as officers who send soldiers into battle without weapons. For over 40 years, Winston has been trying to remedy the situation with his “How to Speak” lecture, offered every January,” notes MIT, “usually to overflow crowds.” It became “so popular, in fact, that the annual talk had to be limited to the first 300 participants.”




Now it’s available online, in both video and transcript form, in the talk’s final form from 2018 (it evolved quite a bit over the decades). Professor Winston passed away last year, but his wisdom lives on. Rather than present us with a dry theory of rhetoric and composition, the onetime director of the MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory offers “a few heuristic rules” distilled from “praxis in communication approaches that incorporate Neurolinguistics, Linguistics, Paleoanthropology, Cognitive Science and Computer Science,” writes Minnie Kasyoka.

Winston’s research on “creating machines with the same thought patterns as humans” led him to the following conclusions about effective speaking and writing—observations that have borne themselves out in the careers of thousands of public speakers, job seekers, and professionals of every kind. Many of his heuristics contradict decades of folk opinion on public speaking, as well as contemporary technological trends. For one thing, he says, avoid opening with a joke.

People still settling into their seats will be too distracted to pay attention and you won’t get the laugh. Instead, open with an analogy or a story, like his Mary Lou Retton gambit, then tell people, directly, what they’re going to get from your talk. Then tell them again. And again. “It’s a good idea to cycle on the subject,” says Winston. “Go around it. Go round it again. Go round it again.” It’s not that we should assume our audience is unintelligent, but rather that “at any given moment, about 20%” of them “will be fogged out no matter what the lecture is.” It’s just how the human mind works, shifting attention all over the place.

Like all great works on effective communication, Winston’s talk illustrates his methods as it explains them: he fills the lecture with memorable images—like “building a fence” around his idea to distinguish it from other similar ideas. He continues to use interesting little stories to make things concrete, like an anecdote about a Serbian nun who was offended by him putting his hands behind his back. This is offered in service of his lengthy defense of the blackboard, contra PowerPoint, as the ultimate visual aid. “Now, you have something to do with your hands.”

The talk is relaxed, humorous, and informative, and not a step-by-step method. As Winston says, you can dip in and out of the copious advice he presents, taking rules you think might work best for your particular style of communication and your communication needs. We should all, he emphasizes, hone our own way of speaking and writing. But, “while he never explicitly stresses the ultimate need for rhetorical devices,” Kasyoka points out, he demonstrates that they are imperative.

Professor Winston masterfully uses persuasive techniques to hammer on this point. For example, the use of anadiplosis, that is the repetition of a clause in a sentence for emphasis, is very manifest in this snippet from his talk: “Your careers will be determined largely by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the quality of your ideas… in that order.” 

How do we learn to use rhetoric as effectively as Winston? We listen to and read effective rhetoric like his. Do so in the video lecture at the top and on the “How to Speak” course page, which has transcripts for download and additional resources for further study.

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

An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Groundbreaking Linguistic Theories

Most people who know Noam Chomsky know him equally as a giant in academic linguistics and a longtime leftist dissident and political commentator. Only a committed few, however, read much of his work in either—or both—fields. He is one of those thinkers whose major concepts enter the discourse unmoored from their original context. Phrases like “universal grammar” and “manufactured consent” tend to pop up in all kinds of places without reference to Chomsky’s meanings.

If you simply haven’t got the time to read Chomsky (and let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in the world these days), you might familiarize yourself with his media theory in an amusing video here. For an entry into Chomsky’s work in linguistics, see the brief animated TED-Ed video above. The explainer revisits the Chomskyian revolution of 1957, when he articulated his ideas about the universal properties of language in his first book, Syntactic Structures.




Chomsky, the video says, explored the questions, “are there universal grammar rules and are they hardwired into our brains?” He did not invent the concept of “universal grammar”—the idea can be found in the 13th century writing of Roger Bacon—but Chomsky’s specific meaning of the term applies uniquely to language acquisition. Rather than suggesting that language exists as an abstract universal property, Chomsky argued that its basic structure, shared across the world, derives from structures in the brain that take shape in infancy.

Humans physically evolved to acquire and use language in strikingly similar ways that accord with universally observable and applicable rules, Chomsky argued. As the lesson points out, a claim this broad requires a mountain of evidence. At the time, many languages around the world had not been sufficiently studied or recorded. Since Chomsky’s initial arguments, ideas about linguistic similarities have been significantly revised.

Several critics have argued that no amount of data can ever produce “universal” rules. After decades of critique, Chomsky revised his theories, explaining them in different terms as “Principles and Parameters” that govern languages. He has further simplified and specified, proposing one universal criterion: “Recursion.” All languages, he argues, can nest ideas inside other ideas.

Recursion, too, has been forcefully challenged by the study of an Amazonian language that shows none of the characteristics Chomsky globally outlined. The other part of Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar—the idea that the brain develops innate, isolated language-making faculties—has also been refuted by neuroscientists, who have not found evidence of any such specific structures.

Why, then, is Chomsky still so critically important to linguistics, cognitive science, and other fields of study? For one thing, his work encouraged the study of languages that had been neglected and ignored. The debates Chomsky generated pushed the field forward, and broke the spell of the Behaviorism that dominated the human sciences into the mid-20th century. Even where he was wrong, or overconfident, his work remains an essential reference for the kind of thinking that revolutionized linguistics and brain science.

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

Peruvian Singer & Rapper, Renata Flores, Helps Preserve Quechua with Viral Hits on YouTube

Ten years ago, a study by David Harmon and Jonathan Loh showed that in 30 years’ time, the world had seen a twenty percent decline in linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages and local dialects have continued to dwindle, in the U.S. and around the globe. “There are a lot of pressures in the world that are enticing or even forcing people to switch from generally smaller, more geographically restricted languages, to larger languages,” Harmon told National Geographic, “especially global languages like Mandarin Chinese, English, or Spanish.”

This pressure has been exerted on indigenous languages for centuries. Yet hundreds have survived, including Quechua, a family of languages descended from the Inca, and spoken by almost 4 million people in Peru alone. With many more speakers in Bolivia, Argentina, and elsewhere, it is Latin America’s most widely spoken Indigenous language.




It may seem to be thriving, but Quechua speakers are widely treated with contempt in Peru, though they make up roughly 13% of the population. They are the country’s poor and ignored. Quechua has been grossly understudied in academia and until recently has had almost no major media presence.

The language’s absence from centers of power has made it less accessible to newer generations—whose parents would not teach them Quechua for fear of stigmatizing them—and more likely to die out without intervention. It became “synonymous with discrimination” and “social rejection,” says Hugo Coya, director of a recent Peruvian news program entirely in Quechua. Coya aims to change that, as does Peruvian scholar Roxana Quispe Collantes, who defended the first Quechua doctoral thesis last year. Their work will surely have significant impact, but perhaps not nearly as much as the debut of a 14-year-old Peruvian singer and rapper, Renata Flores, who had a viral hit five years ago with her Quechua cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” (top).

Flores, now 19, has followed up with a string of songs in Quechua that have “brought huge success,” writes Vice, “millions of views on YouTube; features and interviews in Peruvian media and foreign press like The Clinic, Telemundo, El Paid, AJ+ Español, CNN, and BBC; fans in Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the United States, Spain, Italy, China, Algeria, and counting. And with it, Flores is challenging the very way people value languages, especially indigenous ones.” Her music may speak the language of a specific region, but does so in a global idiom, combining “trap, hip-hop, and electronic influences with Andean instruments.”

Flores’ success in bringing such widespread attention to Quechua shows another major cultural shift of the past few years. Internet culture, once assumed to be ephemeral and of little lasting value, has become the coin of the realm, as academic humanities struggle, political institutions implode, and journalism fails. The joke so often goes that historians of the future will have to fill textbooks (or interactive virtual reality lessons) with tweets, posts, and memes. Viral YouTube stars like Flores are also making history, their videos primary documents of how a language that is marginalized in its home country reached out and found millions of fans around the world.

“The message conveyed to Quechua speakers” by most treatments of their culture in Peru, “is that their identities are part of the region’s past,” writes Julie Turkewitz in a New York Times profile of Flores. Harmon makes a similar connection: “there is a strong possibility that we’ll lose languages that people are using as their main vehicle of expression, which they may regard as one of the linchpins of their self-identity.” When national narratives, media, and education relegate a contemporary language to a pre-colonial past, it tells millions of people they essentially don’t exist in the modern world. Flores, who grew up with Quechua, counters that message with style.

Flores and other Quechua singers not only reaffirm their cultural identity, but they put their language in conversation with contemporary pop music and political concerns. Taking on “female power, government corruption, war and international pop culture polemics,” writes Turkewitz, Flores continues a legacy her one-time musician parents helped launch decades earlier, a Quechua-language blue-rock movement called Uchpa. Now her family helps her record her own songs in their music school. But like most young artists she began with covers. See her play a Quechua version of “House of the Rising Sun” as a 14-year-old contest winner, further up; see her very first concert, at the same age, in her hometown of Ayacucho, below. And see what she’s been up to since then in the videos above and on her YouTube channel.

via NYTimes

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

One of the Earliest Known Uses of the “F-word” Discovered: It Appears in a 1568 Anthology Compiled During a Plague

“Wan fukkit funling”: as an insult, these words would today land a minor blow at most. Not so in Scotland of the early 16th century, in which William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, two of the land’s well-known poets, faced off before the court of King James IV in a contest of rhyme. The event is memorialized in the poem “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie,” one of 400 anthologized in what’s known as the Bannatyne Manuscript. Compiled in 1568 by an Edinburgh merchant named George Bannatyne, stuck at home while a plague swept his city — a condition many can relate to these days — it now enjoys pride of place at the National Library of Scotland as a cultural treasure, not least because it contains what may be the oldest recorded use of the F-word.

The Bannatyne Manuscript and “wan fukkit funling” (whose appearance you can see in the image at the top of the post, in the sixth line from the bottom) play an important part in the new BBC Scotland documentary Scotland – Contains Strong Language. The hour-long program, writes The Scotsman‘s Brian Ferguson, “sees actress, singer and theatre-maker Cora Bissett trace the nation’s long love affair with swearing and insults, despite the long-standing efforts of religious leaders to condemn it as a sin.” Ferguson quotes Bissett describing the importance of this particular “flyting” (“the 16th century equivalent of a rap battle”) as follows: “When Kennedy addresses Dunbar, there is the earliest surviving record of the word ‘f***’ in the world.”

“In the poem, Dunbar makes fun of Kennedy’s Highland dialect, for instance, as well as his personal appearance, and he suggests his opponent enjoys sexual intercourse with horses,” writes Ars Technica’s Jennifer Ouellette. “Kennedy retaliates with attacks on Dunbar’s diminutive stature and lack of bowel control, suggesting his rival gets his inspiration from drinking ‘frogspawn’ from the waters of a rural pond.” All highly amusing, to be sure, but given how few of us English-speakers will immediately recognize in “wan fukkit funling” the curse with which we’ve grown so intimately familiar, does this really count as an example of usage in English?

‘To me, that looks more like Scots than Middle English,” writes Boing Boing’s Thom Dunn, “although both languages were derived from Olde English.” (He also reminds us not to confuse Scots with the separate language of Scottish Gaelic.) Medieval historian Kristin Uscinski writes in to Ars Technica to point out a certain “Roger F$#%-by-the-Navel who appears in some court records from 1310-11” — previously featured, of course, here on Open Culture. Historians and linguists will surely continue doing their own kind of battle to determine what counts as the first true F-word, making more discoveries about the English language’s heritage of swearing along the way. One thing is certain: if any nation has made a rich use of that heritage, it’s Scotland.

via BoingBoing

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A Lecture About the History of the Scots Language … in Scots: How Much Can You Comprehend?

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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.”

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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

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

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