Ancient Turkish Whistling Changes our Perception of Language

We whistle to catch a person’s attention. We whistle to express excitement and joy. But, did you know that whistling could be used as a language? It has been for many years in Turkey.

Is Turkish Whistling a language?

Whistling is a common mode of communication in the Kuskoy region of Turkey. Aptly called the “bird village”, this community uses whistling to have long-distance chats; it sounds like birds chirping in a shrill tone, but is actually conveying meaningful information. Though it lacks the syntax and phonetic components of common language, it has a sound associated with each syllable of modern Turkish. This feature makes the whistling language dynamic; one could add more words to its dictionary. It is said that this centuries-old language probably came about to facilitate conversations among inhabitants who often lived miles apart from each other along rocky terrains.

How does the brain interpret Turkish Whistling? A study finds out.

Language perception is a fascinating field of study marked by years of research. The consensus in the field of linguistics is that we disproportionately use the left side of the brain for language perception. The word production and grammar functions of the languages we speak are thought to overwhelmingly involve regions in the left hemisphere of the brain. On the other hand, sound-related variables such as pitch, timbre, and melody are interpreted by the right hemisphere of the brain. In fact, it is thought that we use our right hemisphere to process music. The study published in Current Biology addresses how Turkish whistling involves components of both sound and syntax-⎯components that are associated with the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Could this whistling then involve the entire brain?

Turkish Whistling uses both sides of the brain

The researchers used a dichotic testing paradigm⎯a test that uses different sounds to simultaneously stimulate the right and left ears⎯to figure out whether Turkish whistling used both sides of the brain. When participants were asked to compare vocal listening tasks and whistling listening tasks, the vocal task showed left hemisphere dominance. On the other hand, in whistling tasks, there was no notable dominance of either hemisphere, suggesting a global involvement of hemispheres.

This newly discovered neural processing of the ancient whistling language reveals how little we know about language and the brain.

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