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Saturday, 6 November, 1999, 11:31 GMT
Whistling Turks
Farmers whistle as part of their everyday business

By Chris Morris in Ankara

I arrived at Halil Cindik's house as he was having a chat with his friend Kucuk. You know the sort of thing, just a couple of neighbours chewing the cud across the garden fence.

Except in this case, they were somewhat further apart, several hundred metres apart in fact, across a rather wide valley.

They're used to it of course, having grown up in this land of vibrant green mountains and steep wooded slopes near the southern shores of the Black Sea. Houses in the village of Kuskoy perch precariously above little more than thin air.

Now the telephone only arrived in these parts a few years ago, so for generations if you did want to talk to your neighbours there was no choice. It was not so much sing for your supper as whistle down the wind.

Bird village

Kuskoy literally means the Bird Village and if you can't whistle, well you're probably not from round here.

I would try to give you a quick example, but sadly all I could manage was a rather unpleasant raspberry sound. I can accompany my favourite tune on the radio as well as anyone, but this is no ordinary whistle.

Intensive training from my hosts on how precisely to angle my tongue and rest my forefinger on my front teeth produced only further embarrassment.

In the end, I had to settle for another cup of tea, and the dunce's hat in the corner.

Kuskoy's champion whistlers, on the other hand, do it loud and proud - with a decibel level anywhere between noticeable and ear-splitting.

Halil and Kucuk make it look and sound ever so easy, but earplugs could occasionally be an advantage. I wouldn't want to get caught in a heated argument on a long winter's night.

Bird language

And argue they can, because there's a whole language of whistles which about 1,000 people in and around Kuskoy use.

Anything they can say in Turkish, they can whistle as well. And when your best friend is just across the valley - but it takes an hour of rock scrambling to get there - it's a pretty useful talent to have.

At the moment they have 29 separate whistled noises, one for each letter of the Turkish alphabet. But there could be more - just alter the angle of the tongue, and away you go.

Education in the fine art of whistling begins at an early age, and it's a bit like learning to talk - all the local kids pick it up in the end.

Practice makes perfect, and the shrill sound of local chatter echoes down the valley more or less constantly.

A long history

No one really knows exactly when it started, only why. But the writer Xenophon described people shouting across valleys in the same region more than 2,000 years ago.

Long-distance whistling in Kuskoy is passed down from generation to generation, and it probably has a long history.

There are a handful of other villages around the world where the same tradition thrives in similar remote regions of Mexico, Greece and Spain.

But Kuskoy believes it boasts the largest concentration of whistlers on the planet. It's determined that its language will not be allowed to wither and die as people move away from the village, and modern technology intrudes into the mountains.

Most people in the area are farmers of one sort or another, and they still whistle as part of their everyday business.

News that a lorry might be coming to pick up the tea harvest, or that someone in the valley round the corner has some leaves to sell, whistles quickly through the community.

Technological onslaught

It's much more than a gimmick.

But can this extraordinary language really survive the technological onslaught? Regular telephones were one thing, but mobiles and laptops are quite another.

No telegraph poles, no fuss, and no need to venture out onto the roof to whistle across the valley in a sudden mountain storm.

It is a significant threat, and the locals admit that sometimes they get a little lazy. But they are determined that what they call their bird language will continue to flourish.

As we all get swept along faster and faster by the giddy currents of the communications revolution, the message from Kuskoy is simple - that sometimes the old ways are still the best ones.


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