You need both sides of your brain to speak whistled Turkish
August 21, 2015 2:46 AM   Subscribe

Whistled Turkish is a non-conformist. Most obviously, it bucks the normal language trend of using consonants and vowels, opting instead for a bird-like whistle. But more importantly, it departs from other language forms in a more fundamental respect: it's processed differently by the brain.
posted by MartinWisse (9 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Like Silbo I take it.

The left brain, right brain thing is generally overstated anyway.
posted by Segundus at 4:20 AM on August 21, 2015

We've talked about whistled languages before, and the author quotes a neuroscientist stating that the technique they used doesn't necessarily demonstrate what they claim, but you should check out the example of sine-wave speech from the side bar, because that was really cool.
posted by KGMoney at 5:04 AM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

According to Güntürkün, the right hemisphere is involved in decoding properties like melody, pitch, and tone—the kinds of cues that let you know whether or not a sentence is sarcastic. His hypothesis was that whistling, as a highly melodic form of language, involves the right hemisphere more than other language forms, perhaps even to such an extent that whistled language breaks the left-hemisphere dominance trend.

Different language forms do show up differently in the brain. “It’s well-known that the form of the language matters,” said Joseph Devlin, a neuroscientist at University College London who wasn't involved in this research. “Sign language doesn’t look exactly like spoken language in the brain; reading Chinese doesn’t look exactly like reading English.”

I wonder how brain activity differs when processing tonal languages vs. non-tonal languages?

Whistled languages seem like a tonal language taken to the extreme—indeed, like a language with almost all content except for the tonal content removed.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:37 AM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

They ain't just whistling Dixie.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:39 AM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was wondering how the knife & wood is used in this dialect, until I realized that this isn't Whittled Turkish.
posted by dr_dank at 6:58 AM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Speaking as one who knows English, Thai, and a little Chinese, I don't think the tonal thing represents a serious difference in brain activity. But I have literally zero scientific evidence.

Pure whistled language could be basically just like an extremely complex, non-recurring tonal language, though. The article says it is like talking with a full mouth, where there are still recognizably words, but just blurred.

In which case it does not seem as interesting to me as a purely melodic language. It is just a fuzzy, badly spoken word with a tone. Maybe I do not understand correctly.

Ideographic representation as in Chinese is very different though, from phoentic languages. But that has more to do with the literary and writing aspect, nothing to do with the brain so far as I can see.
posted by niphates at 7:03 AM on August 21, 2015

posted by Nelson at 10:44 AM on August 21, 2015

I wish they had taken more in-depth photos and videos of whistlers. The positioning of the hand in the first picture really intrigued me. I'm going to be attempting to whistle like that until I get home and can give it further research. This is awesome.
posted by shenkerism at 2:20 PM on August 21, 2015

"In which case it does not seem as interesting to me as a purely melodic language. It is just a fuzzy, badly spoken word with a tone."

Right. I haven't found any references on whistled languages that provide a single example that isn't a secondary language that exists as a version of a primary spoken language. If that's the case, then you cannot consider whistled languages as distinct languages in their own right -- unlike (most) signed languages which are not secondary languages derived from a spoken language and which are used primarily by native speakers.

So whistled languages (assuming there are no primary, independent whistled languages) should be thought of as more comparable to written languages (or something like signed English) -- they are a subset of a spoken language expressed in a non-spoken form.

With that in mind, comparing brain activity of one of these whistled languages to the brain activity of speaking a language is not a valid comparison. It's going to be the brain activity associated with the spoken language plus whatever extra is involved in expressing that language in the form of whistling rather than speech. In this respect it will be more like written or signed English, for example. A true signed language, like American Sign Language, will also necessarily differ somewhat from a spoken language neurologically because of the different (and not evolved) motor skills involved along with the associated spatial aspect of the language. But, even so and as the article says, a native signed language shows pretty much the same activity as other languages because a) the human brain has evolved the capacity for language and that capacity is localized in the brain; and b) the brain is nevertheless quite plastic and so it both adapts those areas of the brain for a signed language as well as utilizing a few other areas of the brain that are particular to the motor and spatial skills necessary for the language.

This article doesn't tell us what brain scans of people using written language, or morse code, or a signed transliteration of a spoken language look like -- for all we know, such scans show a more bicameral distribution of activity like the whistled language scans show. With these sorts of transliterations of a spoken language, your brain is doing the spoken language plus whatever is involved in the transliteration minus the muscle activity of the spoken language (but you're still doing almost all of the brain work associated with that -- the most extreme and clearest example of this is that subvocalization is inhibited speech) and so you can imagine some transliterations necessarily using the left hemisphere regions associated with language and some right hemisphere regions required for the transliteration and physical expression.

For example, even though these whistled languages strongly correlate to toned languages and therefore a lot of the tonality will be processed in the usual language-associated regions of the brain, it seems plausible that a whistled language will necessarily place such a near-total and unusual emphasis on tonality and rhythm that the brain may require some of the regions/functions related to music. And the right hemisphere is associated with music, both with regard to pitch and rhythm.

This is all supposition -- I'm neither linguist nor neuroscientist. But I don't need to be either to know enough about both subjects to understand that a transliterated secondary language, like a secondary whistled language or a written language, is not qualitatively the same thing as a spoken language. It's a transliteration of a spoken language that is necessarily dependent upon the spoken language, necessarily a subset of the spoken language, and necessarily involves both the regions of the brain associated with the spoken language and those necessary for the transliteration. To say that a brain scan of a secondary whistled language looks like this compared to a brain scan of a different spoken language looks like that, is a flawed comparison.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:31 AM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older I thought, Oh my god this is really a jail   |   surviving in a hungry sea of white noise Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments