Whistled Language Brings Surprising Brain Discovery

People must use both sides of their brain to understand it, a first
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 18, 2015 9:10 PM CDT

The rapidly disappearing "bird language" that is spoken—or whistled, actually—by about 10,000 residents in the mountains of Turkey is changing the way scientists think about language and the brain. The left hemisphere has always been dominant when interpreting language, be it spoken, written, signed, or even clicked, explains New Scientist. But that changed when German researcher Onur Güntürkün decided to study the whistled version of Turkish. Güntürkün wanted to see if its musicality might require the brain's right hemisphere, which handles frequency, pitch, and melody. His study of 31 whistled Turkish speakers showed the left hemisphere was 75% dominant with spoken Turkish, but the split between hemispheres was even with the whistled language.

"We’ve shown for the first time equal contributions from both hemispheres," says Güntürkün, whose study was published in Current Biology. He tells the New Yorker that this suggests our brain structure "is not as fixed as we assume" and that the way information is delivered changes it. The language developed because whistles carry further than spoken words, and its messages can be understood across mountains and valleys. (The New Yorker offers an example of a whistle that means, "Do you have fresh bread?") It's lucky Güntürkün got his study in when he did, as modern technology is killing off whistled Turkish. "You can gossip with a mobile phone, but you can't do that with whistling because the whole valley hears," he says. (But, how does any of this explain how one man could lose most of his brain and not even notice?)

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