The small Turkish town of Kuşköy, tucked into an isolated valley on the rainy, mountainous Black Sea coast of Turkey, looks ........ like the other villages in the region. Kuşköy is remarkable not for how it looks but for how it sounds: here, the roar of the water is ........ accompanied by loud, lilting whistles – the distinctive tones of the local language. Over the past half-century, linguists and reporters, curious about what locals call “bird language,” have occasionally struggled up the footpaths and dirt roads that lead to Kuşköy. So its thousand or so residents were not surprised when biopsychologist Onur Güntürkün showed up and asked them to participate in a study.
Whistled languages, although unusual, have been ........ for centuries. Most of the examples that have been documented arose in places where it might otherwise be hard to communicate at a distance. All are based on spoken languages: Kuşköy’s version adapts standard Turkish syllables into piercing tones that can be heard from more than half a mile away.
How does the brain handle a language that renders words as something like music?Although neuroscientists have long understood that brain functions do not divide ........ between the left and right hemispheres, the former appears to play a consistently dominant role in our understanding of language regardless of whether the language is tonal or atonal, spoken or written, signed with the hands or clicked with the tongue. The right hemisphere, meanwhile, seems to govern our understanding of pitch, melody, and rhythm. Güntürkün tested this cranial division of labor with thirty-one volunteers, all fluent in both spoken and whistled Turkish, to listen to pairs of different syllables played simultaneously through headphones, one in each ear. When he gave them spoken Turkish, the participants usually understood the syllable played through the right speaker, suggesting that the left hemisphere was processing the sound. When he switched to whistled Turkish, however, the participants understood both syllables in roughly equal measure, suggesting that both hemispheres played significant roles in the early stages of comprehension.
Although the technique used isn’t as precise as laboratory techniques, his results are tantalizing. “They tell us that the organization of our brain, in terms of its asymmetrical structure, is not as fixed as we assume.” “The way information is given to us appears to change the architecture of our brain in a radical way.” He now wonders whether people whose spoken-language comprehension is damaged by a left hemisphere stroke could learn to understand a whistled dialect, much as some people with stroke-damaged speech can communicate by singing.
The opportunity to study whistled Turkish, however, is fading. In 1964, a stringer for the Times reported that children in Kuşköy were learning to communicate by whistling before they started school, and that both men and women regularly gossiped, argued, and even courted via whistle. Three years later, a team of visiting linguists observed that whistling was widely used in both the village and the surrounding countryside. But Güntürkün found that few, if any, young women had learned the language, and that, although some young men were fluent whistlers, they had learned the skill as teenagers, more out of pride than any practical need. In a small town filled with nosy neighbors, texting affords a level of privacy that whistling never did.
Adapted from: NIJHUIS, M. The Whistled Language of Northern Turkey. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/. Accessed on August, 20th, 2015.
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