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Turkish Whistling defies brain 'norms'

Fri, 21st Aug 2015

Sam Mahaffey

Scientists in Germany have discovered that a whistled form of Turkish defies convention by using the processing power of both sides of the brain.

Prior to this study, scientists believed that all languages, whether spoken, written or signed, were processed in one side of the brain. For most people this is the left side.

Whistled Turkish is used in the mountainous regions of north-eastern Turkey and uses melodic whistles to carry messages over long distances, from village to village.

Although it sounds very different, whistled Turkish is exactly the same language as conventional Turkish. It has all the same words and grammar; it is simply communicated in a different form. This is similar to the way the English language can be communicated by writing or speaking, or through braille and sign language.

But Prof. Onur Güntürkün, who led the study at Ruhr University Bochum, has discovered that the whistled version has one major difference to all other forms of language, in that it uses both hemispheres of the brain.

Whistled Turkish uses melodic changes, or a ‘varied acoustic signal’ to express meaning and this is better suited to the right side of the brain. The melodic changes convey meaning, similar to how spoken language uses intonation to show emotion.

The emotional content of a spoken sentence is encoded in the acoustic signal, Prof Güntürkün explains.

“Whistles are exactly that, slow changes in the acoustic signal over time, and this is the speciality of our right hemisphere.”

Tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese, also use varied acoustic signals but these languages are still left-brain dominant. 

Prof. Güntürkün believes that this is because tonal languages have too many fast changes of the auditory signal, unlike whistled language where the changes are slow.The slow changes of whistled language more closely resemble singing. This is interesting because the right hemisphere of the brain also has superiority in processing music and rhythm.

“People with a left hemispheric stroke, who have major trouble speaking, can sing. And they also sing with words.”

Prof Güntürkün thus hopes that one day his findings may contribute to treating conditions such as left hemispheric strokes 

“This could be an alternative route to language understanding, obviously this is theory now but this is something I really would like to study in the future.”  

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