Click click

On the radio this morning they told an interesting, language-related story about David Attenborough, the famous maker of natural history programmes. Apparently he filmed people speaking one of the ‘click’ languages for a programme called The Tribal Eye, which examined sculpture, weaving, metal casting, and other artistic activities in tribal societies around the world. After working on the sound track for quite a while, the sound engineer proudly announced that he had managed to clean up all the strange clicking sounds in the background – he didn’t realise that they were an integral part of the language.

There are some sample recordings of click languages here.

Do any of you speak or have you studied a language that includes click consonants?

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10 Responses to Click click

  1. Polly says:

    I wonder how the “corrected” audio transcript would have sounded to speakers of that language. Maybe like a microphone cutting in and out? The effect would likely sound quite comical, I imagine.

  2. JD says:

    I studied Mam (a Mayan language) while I was volunteering in Guatemala. While it doesn’t have clicks, it has a lot of glottal stops, which combined with consonants (like K), can resemble a ‘click’. Wonderful people, but man, was their language hard to learn :)

  3. BnB says:

    I read someplace about the incredible number of different kinds of clicks some languages can have; frankly I was dubious (above 50, as I recall). Can’t imagine trying to disambiguate them aurally.

    Jeez, I was happy to master the ‘ayn sound of Arabic (a glottal stop), much less work in clicks…

  4. BG says:

    BnB: I don’t know Arabic or anything, but I think ʿayn is a pharyngeal (or epiglottal) fricative/approximate, and ʾalif is a glottal stop.

  5. BnB says:

    You’re right… I should have said pharyngeal…

  6. ISPKN says:

    I don’t remember having much trouble with `ayn when I first studied Arabic. I just listened to some speakers and read as much as I could about how to produce that sound, I had much more trouble with the emphatically velarized Arabic consonants. They didn’t have much of a distinct sound.

    Back on subject, I did once try to learn a bit of Zulu and all I can recall of that language is the word sanibonani. I don’t even remember what it means.

  7. Simon says:

    ISPKN – sanibonani means literally ‘I see you (pl)’ and is a typical greeting in Zulu I think.

  8. Aaron says:

    I’m in the process of studying Xhosa, which I fell in love with for it’s clicks. I have a feeling that it’s much easier than, say, Nama, because with Xhosa there are only three basic clicks and only about 5 variations of each, while in Nama and other Khoisan languages more than half of the consonants are composed of clicks. At least, that’s from what I understand.

  9. Zachary says:

    I’m curious to know, is it possible for a click language to be without vowels? I figure it could be since sound is still produced in clicks, but it’s not as effective as vowels. But then, I also wonder if a vowel-only language is possible…

  10. John says:

    The award for the language with the most clicks seems to go to !Xóõ, a Khoisan language in southern Africa. !Xóõ has 5 places of articulation for its clicks, each of which can be accompanied by one of 16 possible secondary articulations, making a total of 80 click sounds.