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Strange Whistled Turkish Language Uses Both Sides of the Human Brain

First Posted: Aug 18, 2015 08:01 AM EDT

Language processing is usually a job for the brain's left hemisphere, whether the language happens to be spoken, written, or signed. Now, though, researchers have found that whistled Turkish actually uses both sides of the brain.

Whistled Turkish is Turkish that has been adapted into a series of whistles. This method of communicating was popular before the advent of telephones in small villages in turkey as a means for long-distance communication. In comparison to spoken Turkish, whistled Turkish carries much further.

"If you look at the topography, it is clear how handy whistled communication is," said Onur Gunturkun, one of the researchers, in a news release. "You can't articulate as loud as you can whistle, so whistled language can be heard kilometers away across steep canyons and high mountains."

Whistled Turkish isn't a distinct language from Turkish. It's essentially Turkish converted into a different form, rather like text is language converted into a different form. With that said, Gunturkun found the language surprisingly difficult to understand even though he was a native Turkish speaker.

The researchers decided to look at the language a bit more closely by examining the brain asymmetry in processing spoken versus whistled Turkish by presenting whistled-Turkish speakers with speech sounds delivered to their left or right ears through headphones. The participants then reported what they'd heard. While individuals more often perceived spoken syllables when presented to the right ear, they heard whistled sounds equally well on both sides.

"We could show that whistled Turkish creates a balanced contribution of the hemispheres," said Gunturkun. "The left hemisphere is involved since whistled Turkish is a language, but the right hemisphere is equally involved since for this strange language all auditory specializations of this hemisphere are needed."

The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.

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