Turkish town
An ancient whistling language spoken in a mountainous region of Turkey provides new insight into communication. Above, a woman sits high on the ramparts of Hasankeyf on the banks of the Tigris in 2010. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Studies of a rare whistling language native to a mountainous region of northeast Turkey could influence the way we understand communication. A team of German and Turkish researchers have discovered that the ancient language relies uniquely on the use of both the left and right sides of the brain, whereas language processing is generally thought to be a job of the brain’s left hemisphere.

“In all languages, tonal or atonal, click or sign language, written or spoken, it’s so far been the left hemisphere that appears to do most of the interpretation,” Onur Güntürkün of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, who helped lead the study, told New Scientist. “Now, we’ve shown for the first time equal contributions from both hemispheres.”

The whistling language, which sounds like birds tweeting, is still used by about 10,000 people in the northeast Turkey region of Kusköy, who call it "kuş dili," or “bird language,”The language can carry messages about three miles, and was useful in carrying messages across long distances before modern technology. Researchers said the language isn't different from Turkish -- it's simply Turkish converted into a different form.

"We are unbelievably lucky that such a language indeed exists," Güntürkün said, according to Science Daily. "It is a true experiment of nature."

The language became the subject of research after Güntürkün wondered whether the melodies and frequencies required both sides of the brain to communicate given the language's similarities to music. The findings were published in the journal Current Biology Monday.

The research team tested 31 whistlers by playing slightly different spoken or whistled syllables into each of their ears at the same time, and then asked them to report what they heard. The left hemisphere depends more on the right ear, and the opposite is true of the right hemisphere, thereby allowing researchers to measure the activity of each side based on what sounds respondents were able to pick up.

When syllables were spoken, the right ear and left hemisphere were dominant about 75 percent of the time, whereas when whistled, the right and left ear and corresponding hemisphere both heard evenly.

Scientists said the study could influence how we understand communication as it indicates left-hemispheric dominance is particular to the physical structure of the language, and not necessarily communication itself.

“This study uses a remarkable and original paradigm to reinforce arguments that both hemispheres are involved in processing different components of speech,” Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, told New Scientist.

Researchers will continue studying the ancient whistling language, which Güntürkün said could soon go extinct with the spread of cell phones in the region.

“You can gossip with a mobile phone, but you can’t do that with whistling because the whole valley hears,” he said.