Although there are only a few whistling languages across the world being whistled today, they are of incredible interest and importance to linguists, and now neuroscientists. Whistling languages are typically whistled forms of conventionally spoken languages. Whistling languages involve converting the phonetic features of the sentence (especially tone, intonation, and boundaries between words and syllables) to whistles. Whistling can carry across much further distances than conventional speaking (sometimes up to 10 km!), so it can be a very useful tool, especially in difficult to navigate terrain like the mountains of Turkey.
According to an article in Ars Technica, researcher Onur Güntürkün decided to study Whistled Turkish with a method called dichotic listening. This involves listening through headphones, where the headphones usually play the same thing but sometimes play different things. The listener is asked to point out what syllable is being whistled on a written sheet. This is where the neuroscience gets interesting.
It’s relatively well known that your right hemisphere controls the left side of your body and your left hemisphere controls the right side of your body. A lot of people also know that the left hemisphere is where most of language processing is done. In dichotic listening tasks for conventional spoken languages, people generally report the syllable that’s given to their right ear as the one that they heard. However, Whistled Turkish did not show this divide. Güntürkün says that this could mean that processing Whistled Turkish is not as hemisphere dependent as conventional spoken languages.
The results are very preliminary, but if Güntürkün’s hypothesis is correct, it could have far-reaching implications. People who have suffered strokes which damage the left hemisphere of their brain sometimes have trouble speaking and understanding language. But if whistling languages could be processed outside of the left hemisphere, they could be used to help patients recover their linguistic and communicative abilities.
Watch a video of whistled Turkish: (video credit: Onur Güntürkün)
Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Kashgar_Mountains,_Turkey_(3846208079).jpg