Click, Tchick, Tsk!
Let me paint a picture for you. Instead of pronouncing the letter “c” in “coffee” like we normally do, “ka,” it was replaced with a click sound, like “clop.” And instead of pronouncing “t” in the word “tea” like “teh,” we replace it with a sound like “tick.” Crazy idea, right? Well, these are referred to as click consonants and they are used in the same manner consonants as we know it are used.
Have you ever heard of the click song? Listen to this!
Click consonants are present in select African languages, which are commonly referred to as click languages. While clicks are a prominent feature of the Khoisan languages, they have spread to a number of Bantu and Cushitic languages, such as Xhosa and Zulu.
The Khoisan languages were once spoken all across Africa, and they all had clicks, but that doesn’t indicate they were related. In fact, some speculate that these languages were only grouped together due to the presence of clicks! Their vocabulary, sentence structure, and word formation all varied from each other.
The Khoisan languages date back thousands of years, so of the few that still exist today, many are endangered or extinct. Although it is speculated that over time, some of the more recently developed languages, such as Xhosa and Zulu, may have incorporated clicks due interaction with Khoisan language speakers.
So how are clicks written? Specific symbols, such as ʘ, ǀ, ǁ, ǃ, and ǂ, are primarily present in the Khoisan languages, while certain Roman letters in other languages indicate a click, such as the letters C, Q, and X in Zulu and Xhosa.
Each language has specific symbols or consonants to indicate which click sound is to be made.
There are several types of click consonants, each producing different sounds depending on the placement of the tongue and the manner in which air is released from the mouth. They are as follows:
Dental Clicks: When the back of the tongue contacts the soft palate, and the sides and tip of the tongue touch the teeth.
o Ex: tsk tsk
Lateral Clicks: The tip of the tongue is against the roof of the mouth
o Ex: tchick, tchick, tchick, often used when we call animals over
Bilabial Clicks: Both lips make contact and then quickly release
o Ex: Lip-smacking, or blowing a kiss
Post-alveolar Clicks: When the tongue touches the back of the alveolar ridge (the bony part of the roof of the mouth) and then releases to the bottom
o Ex: Clip-clop, the sound often made when imitating horse’s hooves
Palatal Clicks: Sucking the tongue up against the hard palate and snapping it back down quickly
o Ex: As in imitating the sound of snapping your fingers
Now that you know what click languages are and understand a little more about them, I’d like to share with you some examples.
A Bantu language spoken in South Africa, and in parts of Lesotho and Zimbabwe with roughly 19 million speakers (as of 2013). It’s an official language in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and there are books, magazines, newspapers, TV, radio programs, films, and songs in the language!
A Bantu language spoken by about 27 million people (as of 2013) mainly in South Africa, more specifically in the Zululand area of the Natal province. It is similar to Xhosa and has many borrowed words from other languages, especially Afrikaans and English.
Mbukushi is primarily spoken in Namibia, Angola, Botswana, and Zambia around the Okavango river and Kwando river area. There are roughly 95,101 speakers (as of 2020), most also use English, and it’s used by administration in Zambia.
Dahalo is a moribund language with roughly 580 speakers (as of 2019), as most have shifted to Swahili. It is primarily spoken in Kenya around the Lamu and Tana River counties and the language is unwritten! It is also known as Sanye, which is the preferred name, as Dahalo is sometimes considered derogatory, and only contains one click
!Xoõ is a threatened language spoken in Botswana and Namibia by roughly 2,500 people (as of 2011). The language is also considered by some to be a dialect continuum rather than an individual language consisting of two main groups of dialects: West Taa and East Taa. It contains nearly 80 consonants and 20 vowels, and the language is also known to be unwritten.
Originally considered a Khoisan language, Hadza is now known as a language isolate, meaning no other existing language is similar to it. There are roughly 1,000 speakers (as of 2017) primarily located in Tanzania. It’s spoken mainly by adults, and although there is a writing system developed, speakers seldom use it.
As mentioned before, some click languages are endangered or even extinct, so it is difficult to find information on them given there is very limited information out there. Today, there are only about 24-38 click languages that are actively used.
So why aren’t click used in English, you may ask? Well, they are, but they are used in a different manner. Rather than using clicks in words to replace the sounds of consonants, they are used paralinguistically, meaning that the sounds have their own meaning—as in “tsk tsk” often said to indicate disapproval.
I don’t know about you, but I find click languages fascinating, and if you really think about it, we could speak using click consonants. We have the ability to do so, we just need to put the sounds in the proper places.
For now, I’ll continue to marvel at the sound of clicks and share the information (and passion) I have with others. I hope that you all will do the same, so we may continue to hear the wonderful sounds of clicks, for years to come.
Until next time,
Click consonants. (n.d.). Hello Vaia. https://www.studysmarter.us/explanations/english/phonetics/click-consonants/
Dahalo | Ethnologue free. (n.d.). Ethnologue (Free All). https://www.ethnologue.com/language/dal/
Did you know Dahalo is endangered? (n.d.). Endangered Languages. https://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/4064
Editorial Team. (2022, February 1). African Click Languages: The Khoisan’s Secret Tales. Africa Freak. https://africafreak.com/click-languages
Hadza language and alphabet. (n.d.). https://omniglot.com/writing/hadza.htm
Mbukushu | Ethnologue free. (n.d.). Ethnologue (Free All).
Pycha, A. (2017). Speaking in clicks. Scientific American. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican1217-15
Taa language and pronunciation. (n.d.). https://www.omniglot.com/writing/taa.htm
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998a, July 20). Click | Khoisan, Clicks, phonetics. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/click-speech-sound
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998b, July 20). Zulu language | Zulu language | Bantu, South Africa, IsiZulu. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zulu-language
XHosa | Ethnologue free. (n.d.). Ethnologue (Free All). https://www.ethnologue.com/language/xho/
Xhosa alphabet, pronunciation and language. (n.d.). https://www.omniglot.com/writing/xhosa.htm