The annual whistling competition in Kuskoy, Turkey
Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Nestled in Turkey’s Pontic Mountains is a village of about 500 residents called Kuskoy — which means “Bird Village.” Its residents cultivate tea, hazelnuts, corn, beets, they keep livestock and… have an interesting way of communicating. Called “kus dili,” — or “bird language” in Turkish — locals believe their ancestors developed the language about 500 years ago. Instead of words, communication takes place through a series of piercing whistles with each syllable rendered in one of about 20 different sounds, audible more than 300 feet away.

In a region with sparse population and difficult to traverse, kus dili arose as a way for the village to relay messages over long distances. Typical subjects include invitations to tea or to help with work, notifying neighbors about the arrival of a truck to pick up the harvest, or announcements of funerals, births and weddings.

With modernization and the introduction of cellphones, the “bird language” has been on the decline, especially among the youth. “Now we have roads, electricity and phone lines,” notes village headman, Metin Köçek. “In our childhood, the bird language was used a lot in daily life. Now we meet the same needs by using a cell phone.”

For the past 15 years, the villagers have hosted an annual summer festival to keep the language alive. Competitors relay instructions across a valley before a panel of judges — each whistler has his or her own style. “Whistling is in people’s genes here; the best whistlers are artists and everyone knows them. Technology won’t wipe that away,” said Riza Kuyu, a 56-year-old hazelnut farmer.

Whistled languages have thrived then declined in similarly remote regions of Mexico, Greece and Spain. But for Rıfat, a 38-year-old Istanbul firefighter who terms kus dili his “mother tongue,” Kuskoy has an obligation to preserve its cultural heritage.

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