Tooting the importance of whistling

OK, so someone who tattles on another person is a whistleblower, and some people are as slick as a whistle, and you should probably ignore someone who gives you a wolf whistle.

A brief visit is a whistlestop, but you might want to wet your whistle, freshen up and get clean as a whistle.

And if you happen to be in a remote northern province in Turkey, where people don’t have all the modern bells and whistles, you might be whistling all the time.

I happened upon a fascinating story that I originally thought was about a bunch of people in the mountains practising bird calls.

But it turns out farmers, herders and villagers in the vast peaks and valleys in the picturesque province of Giresun aren’t just whistling in the wind — they are actually talking to each other with chirps and peeps.

For hundreds of years, these Turks have been using whistling to communicate across long distances.

In fact, pretty much their entire vocabulary has been translated into their so-called bird language. They make melodies and pitches with their mouths to talk to each other from afar.

So what you have echoing around those Turkish mountains are wives whistling husbands home for supper, teenagers trilling an argument that they want to stay out late and party in the hills, and a whole bunch of very confused birds.

I can remember once being frustrated by my inability to whistle. Most of my friends at South School could whistle and often did. To get someone’s attention, to annoy the Grade 5 girls, or just for fun.

Since I’d had my front chops smashed by Trevor Reidy’s hockey stick in a city league pee wee game down at the outdoor rink, it seemed I no longer had the correct tooth configuration for successful sound production.

My buddies could pull off a wicked whistle by pursing their pie hole just right, but I soon found I had to shove my grubby fingers into my mouth to get any sound at all.

But after much whiffing and blowing and spitting, I finally stumbled upon the secret — the left and right hand middle bird-flipping fingers, positioned just so between the lips and resting on the tongue, produced a mighty screeching warble that would annoy any Grade 5 girl, all the way over to the far side of the schoolyard.

Back then, it seemed awfully important for a kid to be able to conjure up a good whistle, and the two-finger method always served me well whenever I needed to call to a far-off friend or attempt to talk to a bird in a tree.

But today, in the small remote areas of northern Turkey, whistling continues to be more than just a bunch of melodic wind.

It’s a cultural phenomenon. But even though there are still about 10,000 speakers (whistlers?) of the language, people worry that it’s dying out.

There are summer classes to teach young villagers how to whistle-talk, and they even have an annual Bird Language Festival, where people can practise and win prizes for talking in tweets and twitters.

And I mean the original kind, not the tweets and Twitter on your smartphone. And therein lies the rub.

The arrival of cellphones is threatening the survival of useful, unique and fascinating tweeting and twittering. Why whistle when you can text, tweet or simply phone someone out in the field?

Well, if we can’t answer that question, we might as well let technology continue to whistle heritage right out the window. And that ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

Harley Hay is a Red Deer author and filmmaker.

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