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The Whistled ‘Bird Language’ of Turkey May Be Lost Forever

Mobile phones are putting this ancient form of communication at risk.

Villagers use their hands to make the piercing whistle calls.
Villagers use their hands to make the piercing whistle calls. Courtesy Unesco

In the mountains of Northern Turkey, you might hear the strains of whistling on the breeze. It sounds like birdsong–trills, chirrups, lilting whistles—but it’s entirely human. And, for around 10,000 villagers in the Çanakçı district of Giresun, it’s a highly efficient form of communication.

Using only their fingers, tongue, teeth, lips, and cheeks, people can quickly say things as simple as “okay,” or as complicated as “Would you like to join us tomorrow to harvest hazelnuts?” Once upon a time, this way of communicating was widespread across the mountains and valleys of Trabzon, Rize, Ordu, Artvin and Bayburt, by the Black Sea. Today, it persists only among shepherds, and in one village, Kuşköy, where people call it “bird language.”

In the days before mobile phones, these high pitched noises allowed people to communicate across great distances, with their whistles winging through the air, connecting one remote house on the steep terrain with the next. But as technology has made its way across the region, smatterings of bird language have been replaced by much more private 160-character text messages. For centuries, the language has been passed on from grandparent to parent, from parent to child. Now, though, many of its most proficient speakers are aging and physically weak. Young people are no longer interested in learning the language, nor in finding ways to update its vocabulary with new words, and in a few generations it may be gone for good. A modern researcher found that young women barely use the language, and young men learn it more as a point of pride than for any practical purpose.

This week, UNESCO put this dying language on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, where it joins other whistled languages, as well as Neapolitan pizza spinning. It’s hoped that this recognition will help inspire and motivate the people still able to use the language to pass it on and safeguard it for future generations. In Kuşköy, there is an annual Bird Language Festival, where people come together to practice, improve, and share in their heritage. For these people, the head of the local Bird Language Cultural Association said, having their cultural treasure on the world stage has been met “with joy, as a dream come true.”