The Enchanting, Rare Language That Sounds Like a Birdsong

Wednesday January 17, 2018 Written by sam

Animals and plants aren’t the only things going extinct at an unprecedented rate. The world’s languages are also dying out, with some 400 vanishing in the last century and a further 3,000 considered endangered.

Take the ‘whistled language’ of north-eastern Turkey. Passed down through generations for centuries, whistled language is an ingenious way for people dwelling in the mountainous Black Sea region to converse with each other. Its high-pitched, musical sounds carry much further than spoken (or shouted!) words, flying across deep valleys and up steep slopes like playful birds. Though there’s no obvious resemblance, it's derived from conventional Turkish and can be used to communicate everything from questions and descriptions. In this New Yorker story you can hear phrases like "The Black Sea is beautiful!" and "Do you have fresh bread?" – it's a language you have to hear to believe. 

But Kuş Dili ("bird language") – comprised of chirps, whistles, trills and a range of other bird-like noises that users make with their lips, tongues, fingers and teeth – is under threat. The culprit? SMS and instant messenger. Yep, even in remote Turkish mountains. 

These days, whistled language is down to 10,000 users – mainly older people who grew up with it, shepherds, and residents of a remote village called Kuşköy, who are doing all they can to keep their beloved language alive. Kids learn it at school, and there’s even an annual festival dedicated to it.

And now that UNESCO has added the language to its wonderfully named List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, who knows? Mobile phones may have killed off the need to whistle one’s messages across the mountains, but bird language might have wings yet.

Watch people communicating in whistled language here.

Images/video: Iyekko

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