What’s up with click languages? Did you know that “click consonants” are found only in certain African languages? Do you want to learn more about them? Here are 7 interesting facts about these intriguing languages:
“Clicks” Are Found in Only 24-38 Living Languages
Clicks have nonverbal meanings (like indicating disapproval or sympathy) in English and many other languages. But they’re only used as consonants in 24 to 38 living languages. Why the uncertainty? Sometimes, it’s hard to differentiate between a language and a dialect. Regardless, all of these languages are spoken in Africa. There is also an extinct Aboriginal language from Australia that uses them, but it was never used for day-to-day communication.
The largest language family with clicks is the Khoisan “family.” The scare quotes are because linguists no longer believe that all of the languages in this family are actually closely related. Click consonants seem to be the only thing that ties them together.
Click consonants are the defining feature of the Khoisan languages, but neighboring languages like Zulu and Xhosa also incorporate them. Linguists believe clicks spread to these languages through intermarriage and interaction with the neighboring San peoples.
One interesting theory about how this may have happened is described here:
In the Zulu and Xhosa cultures (less so in some areas now), certain people are not supposed to say the names of certain other people, or even say things that sound like their names. . . . what sound could you use that wouldn’t make it a different word that might mean something else, and would still make it understandable? The Khoisan wives knew just what to use: clicks.
As Khoisan wives used their native clicks to censor themselves, eventually the clicks became associated with polite/formal speech. From there, they spread to become an integral part of the language.
The Taa or !Xoõ Language Has the Most Consonants of Any Language
The Taa or !Xoõ language has 164 consonants, including more than 100 click sounds! For comparison, English has 24 consonant sounds. French has 22, and Welsh has 31. Read more