A language based on whistling uses a different part of the brain than spoken communication

The World

Walk through the hilly Turkish village of Kuşköy and you might hear an extraordinary amount of whistling. No, it’s not birds chirping, it’s villagers speaking. In addition to spoken Turkish, many villagers speak an old whistling language that they call kuş dili.

Many, many cultures have a whistling language, says journalist Michelle Nijhuis. She recently wrote about the language and how one bio-psychologist has studied how this particular whistling language is processed in the brain for New Yorker magazine.

That psychologist, Onur Güntürkün, was curious about whether whistling language was processed in the brain like speech or like music. Neuroscientists understand that the left hemisphere of the brain is what generally governs most forms of speech, says Nijhuis, from atonal to tonal languages and even sign language. 

“But since whistling language also has some characteristics of music and neuroscientists know that most things about music are processed by the right hemisphere, Güntürkün was curious about how the brain would handle this language that was somewhere between speech and music,” Nijhuis says.

What he found out, according to Nijhuis, is when villagers spoke Turkish, it predictably engaged the left hemisphere of their brains. When they whistled, both sides of the brain showed activity.

“This [phenomenon] hasn’t been observed in any other form of speech,” says Nijhuis. Güntürkün’s discovery may have powerful implications, he adds.

“Güntürkün was very excited about this result and now speculates that there may be some possibility for people who have left hemisphere damage to their brains and can’t understand standard speech, there may be possibility for them to understand a whistled dialect,” Nijhuis says.

Much like the way that some people with brain injury or trauma discover that while they can no longer speak in the typical way, they can still sing.

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