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Up In Northeastern Turkey, The Whistles Of A Secret Language

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A quick language lesson - here's how you say who won the game in Turkish.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Turkish whistling, to be specific - it's a language used by some 10,000 people in the northeastern part of the country. Onur Guentuerkuen is a biological psychologist at Bochum University in Germany, and he studied the Turkish whistling language.

ONUR GUENTUERKUEN: It's a bit like birds chirping. It's whistles but very complex whistles. It's Turkish but in a whistled form.

SIEGEL: Messages can be understood up to almost four miles away.

GUENTUERKUEN: You're standing on one side of the mountain. The other person is standing on the other side of the mountain, and then they just talk by whistling. I could not imagine that this is possible, but when I saw it, it's really like that. So I thought there are only two or three areas in the world where there are whistled languages. So in the Canary Islands, there is a language called Silbo, and this is whistled Spanish.

SIEGEL: Guentuerkuen set out to learn how the brain registers this language, and he made many recordings of its native speakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

GUENTUERKUEN: In Turkish, the meaning is, please, one kilogram of tomatoes.

CORNISH: Sadly, the number of whistled Turkish speakers is dwindling. These days a mobile phone can bridge distances easier than whistles can. And there's this.

GUENTUERKUEN: When you whistle, you have no privacy.

SIEGEL: The loss of the Turkish whistling language, he says, would be a loss for all of us.

GUENTUERKUEN: We would lose a part of the colors of humanity, but that's true for many things of us humans, that there are alternatives to many things we do. And we all eat hamburgers one day, and then we would lose many things of our colorful cultures that we all created. That would be, obviously, a pity.

CORNISH: That's Onur Guentuerkuen of Bochum University.

GUENTUERKUEN: (Foreign language spoken, whistling). Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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