The whistling village

Last week I reported from Kuşköy, a village between Trabzon and Giresun on the Black Sea coast, where the residents use a form of whistled communication called kuş dili: ‘bird language’. 

You can read my story for Eurasianet, with an audio slideshow, and for the Times, if you have subscription.

I was fascinated to know why such a form of communication arose, how it worked, what situations it was used in, and how it was surviving.

Kuş dili, as it turns out, is actually a form of whistled Turkish, and not a distinct language. It does not have its own specific grammar, but works by transposing spoken syllables into whistled ones. Most speakers insisted that anything said in ordinary Turkish could be said in kuş dili, and that there was no practical limit to the vocabulary.

However it was also apparent that the ability of the listener to understand what is said is also severely limited, given that kuş dili reduces Turkish syllables to a far smaller number of whistled sounds. In practice, people use simple commands and requests that tie in closely with their daily lives: ‘come for some tea’, ‘come and work with me tomorrow’, etc. If there was something important to say, the command would be: ‘Come over here, I need to talk’.

As it turned out, the villagers didn’t know much about how or when kuş dili came into being, but they all agreed that the region’s extremely steep terrain made it very useful.

Kuşköy is also very spread out. Only a few residents live in the valley bed, where the village’s single street runs alongside a roaring river. Most homes are dotted high up the mountainside on the almost vertical wooded slopes; they seem to hang in thin air.

Travelling even a hundred metres or so would be extremely hard, so it is easy to see why whistling comes in handy. A narrow, potholed road jack-knifes up the hill, and it’s also easy to see that the road and the motorcar must have helped in kuş dili’s decline.

But the telephone is the main threat. I’m continually amazed by the quality of mobile phone reception in Turkey, which is generally better in rural areas than it is in Britain. This is largely thanks to the intense competition between providers, each of whom builds their own network. Vodafone, Turkcell, and Avea have all built masts in the valley. I guess this will eventually be fatal to the kuş dili.

The main aspiration for people there is to somehow turn the whistling into a tourist attraction, the festival being the focus. They have their work cut for them.

For one thing, the festival isn’t really about whistling at all. From 10am to 8pm, there was an endless stream of local musicians and singers, and lots and lots of traditional dancing, but no more than 15 minutes or so of whistling.

This included a rather disappointing competition, in which the four contestants hardly got a go, and which was then declared a draw.

Also, the tourist infrastructure in the area is close to zero. I stayed in Görele, a town of about 15,000 and the closest large settlement to Kuşköy, about 40 minutes away. I was lucky enough to get a room in the öğretmen evi (government-funded accommodation for teachers) – there was not a single hotel.

Nevertheless, this is a truly stunning part of the country, and the people were as friendly as anywhere I have been in Turkey.

Soaked in sunshine and rain for most of the year, it is extraordinarily green and fecund. Alongside the woods of hazelnut coppice and tea terraces, there are orchards of every conceivable fruit. This garden-like landscape has been carved over centuries from breathtaking mountains. Kuş dili or no, it’s worth seeing.

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3 thoughts on “The whistling village

  1. Don Greeneberg says:

    Fascinating article, great reporting. Just found your blog, keep it up.

  2. Peter Sommer says:

    Delighted to have come across your blog Alex. Some fascinating articles. Marvellous to hear about the whistling village.

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