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January 3, 2018

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Turkey’s endangered ‘bird language’ listed as UNESCO heritage

THE unusual and efficient whistle language used as a means of communication by villagers in the remote, mountainous northern Turkey, which was recently listed a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, could soon be overtaken by modern technology.

The United Nations Cultural Agency has accepted the “bird language” of Black Sea villagers as an endangered part of world heritage in need of urgent protection.

Around 10,000 people, mostly in the district of Canakci in Giresun Province, still use the language today. It is a highly developed and high-pitch system of whistling among people to communicate in the rugged terrain where mostly they cannot see each other.

This form of communication, which dates back some 500 years to the Ottoman Empire, was widespread across the Black Sea regions. However, 50 years ago it suffered the impact from the progression of technology, and nowadays the rapid growth of mobile systems has put this cultural heritage under serious threat.

In the days before mobile phones, these high-pitch sounds allowed people to communicate across great distances, with whistles winging through the air, connecting one remote house on a steep terrain with the next.

But as technology has made its way across the region, bird language has largely been replaced by much more private text messages.

For centuries, the language has been passed on from grandparents to parents, from parents to children. Now, though, many of its most proficient speakers who use their tongue, teeth and fingers are aging and becoming physically weak.

Young people are no longer interested in neither learning the language nor in finding ways to update its vocabulary with new words. In a few generations, it may be gone for good.

‘Whistle country’

“The mobile phones have had a certain impact on our whistle tradition here, but we are trying to keep our culture alive,” said the Muhtar, the elected headman of Kuskoy (literally translated as “bird village”), Avni Kocek.

This village of some 400 souls where tea and hazelnuts are cultivated is located in the heart of the “whistle country,” and more than 80 percent of its inhabitants practice this incredible method of communication, according to Kocek, who insisted that they are “proud of it.”

“We are very satisfied that our bird language is now a part of the world cultural heritage, it was a dream come true because we believe it will also inspire others,” said Muhtar Kocek, who explained that Kuskoy is making efforts to keep the practice alive through its annual Bird Language Festival.

“Twenty years ago, we started organizing a festival in July in our village, and it has now become a real tourist attraction with hundreds of people attending from different regions of Turkey,” he said.

Seref Kocek, head of the local cultural association, said that the UNESCO’s decision was kind of “a recognition of our language in the world,” adding that despite various setbacks, “bird language is still used by many locals to communicate among each other and is the most practical way to do instead of yelling across the valleys.”

But he also fears that the practice of youngsters using mobile phones is a threat to this heritage which could eventually be extinct, if not protected.

District authorities have started thus teaching the language at primary school level since 2014 in order to instill the practice to the younger generations.

According to experts, whistle languages have existed through the ages across the world like in Spain’s Canary Islands, in Mexico or in Greek villages, but the Turkish one seems to be the highest-pitched and most lexical extended, with more than 400 words and phrases.

High frequency

The “bird language” has a tone higher than other similar whistle languages, and it can travel greater distances, up to 5 kilometers with its piercing tones. So this unusual form of communication was born from sheer necessity and transmitted from generation to generation.

“Whistle language is transmitted from our elders to us and we have the duty to transmit it to our children in the context of parent-child relations. It’s a knowledge which is shared by a mother to her child,” insisted Muhtar Kocek, who also learned this way decades ago.

“I am 50 years old and if I remember correctly I was 5 or so when I started to whistle,” he said.

Turkish Minister of Culture Numan Kurtulmus weighed in the safeguarding process of this language, calling on its users to keep the practice alive.

But technology is not the only threat to this unique language. In the past decades many young people have left Kuskoy as in other rural parts of Turkey, in search for better opportunities.

“One of the reason we organize our annual Festival is to have these people back in their native land with friends or family, so we can all enjoy this heritage, not only whistling but everything that binds us together,” added organizer Seref Kocek.


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