"What is occurring everybody?"
January 8, 2015 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Xhosa, one of the Bantu languages used in South Africa has often confounded non-native speakers with its use of "clicks". Fortunately, you can learn how to use them yourself! posted by quin (27 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
COOL
posted by edheil at 8:15 AM on January 8, 2015


Excellent. The oldest extant human language most likely (seeing as how the speakers have the oldest human DNA lineage and clicks are a sort of proto-speech).

I think English has clicks in it, the tut-tut one often sees in 19th century novels.. but maybe an expert on tut-tuting can correct me if that's not clicking but something else.
posted by stbalbach at 8:52 AM on January 8, 2015


ObAOL: COOL
posted by djeo at 8:54 AM on January 8, 2015


Go ahead, try to watch this without taking a shot at making those clicks. I betcha can't!
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:00 AM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


And yes, "charming" is exactly the word I just used to describe him on my Facebook post of this. He is the personification of charming.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:01 AM on January 8, 2015


I spent a semester abroad in South Africa in college. I learned a bit of Zulu, which has a mere three different click sounds. Back in my substitute teaching days, teaching kids the click sounds was my go-to "oh-god-the-regular-teacher-planned-absolutely-nothing" lesson.
posted by HeroZero at 9:26 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Very cool, but:

> The oldest extant human language most likely

No no no. All languages spoken today, with the obvious exception of creoles and artificial languages, are for practical purposes equally old. We have no idea when language developed, or whether it developed only once or more than once, or what the earliest languages may have been like, and we never will know any of that stuff unless we develop time travel, because all traces of it are long vanished. The earliest known languages (Sumerian, Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Chinese) are just as complex and full of irregularities as modern languages; they could perfectly well be modern languages except for historical happenstance. DNA lineage is irrelevant (language and genetics have nothing to do with each other), and clicks are not "a sort of proto-speech," they're just phonemes, if relatively rare ones. (As is, for instance, English voiceless th as in "thin" -- very few languages have it.)
posted by languagehat at 9:30 AM on January 8, 2015 [31 favorites]


Excellent. The oldest extant human language most likely (seeing as how the speakers have the oldest human DNA lineage and clicks are a sort of proto-speech).

Eek no.

First, it's usually meaningless to talk about the age of a language; languages don't have birthdays because they are the product of a continuous process of change stretching all the way back into prehistory, when the evidence eventually winks out; they are all of equal age. The only exceptions are languages we know were "born" in a certain timeframe, such as creoles and created languages.

Second, clicks are just another type of consonant. They're not "a sort of proto-speech," and in fact, that is a troubling way to characterize them because it suggests that languages with clicks are somehow less evolved than others, something that has been used to justify racism. They're relatively rare, but many languages have rare consonants.

You may be vaguely recalling arguments that suggests that the presence of clicks is conservative; i.e. the languages that have them are preserving a much older feature. I vaguely recall this from some popular press article from a long time ago; you can almost guarantee that it was a misrepresentation of the actual claims.

Third, the clicks on !Xhosa are loans! The language didn't have them thousands of years ago. !Xhosa is a Bantu language; most Bantu languages don't have clicks, except for the ones spoken in certain areas of Africa where they were in intense contact with speakers of Khoisan languages, which can have over a hundred click consonants. In fact, it's the Khoisan languages that generally attract the "oldest languages" nonsense.

So, here is something that I think is really cool about Bantu languages with clicks: One theory about why they have them is hlonipa-- a social avoidance custom practiced by women, who as part of its practice were not supposed to utter certain words in order to show their respect (words related to the names of senior male relatives). The theory is that Khoisan languages, which they were familiar with due to contact with Khoisan speakers, provided a source of sound substitutions that they could use. You can read more in Herbert 1990, "The Sociohistory of Clicks in Southern Bantu." If this is true, women were responsible for changing these languages in a way that is amazing.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:54 AM on January 8, 2015 [38 favorites]


Jeez, you've got to be on the ball to correct a misconception about the antiquity of the Xhosa and Khoisan around this place.
posted by TungstenChef at 10:15 AM on January 8, 2015 [23 favorites]


This place is lousy with linguists. It's a problem. They should probably call an exterminator or something.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:26 AM on January 8, 2015 [17 favorites]


I'm just a lowly archaeologist, busy digging in the dirt and calling everything evidence of ritual behavior. Carry on, linguists! ;-)
posted by TungstenChef at 10:41 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]




Miriam Makeba performing "Qongqothwane"

I find the audience laughing when she does a click to be a little uncomfortable, but I have always loved this video for her introduction to the song. This version has subtitles, which is great.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:10 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I just discovered Trevor Noah from a stand up special he did called African American. I think it's on Netflix, and it is absolutely brilliant.

I was thrilled to see him on QI (Fry's reactions are priceless) and I know he's been a correspondent at least once on the Daily Show.

I am really looking forward to him becoming the star he's going to be in the US.
posted by quin at 11:31 AM on January 8, 2015


I think English has clicks in it, the tut-tut one often sees in 19th century novels.. but maybe an expert on tut-tuting can correct me if that's not clicking but something else.

I'm not expert, but I'll practice my tut-tutting. Even though English speakers do occasionally use clicks to chastise (and to summon cats), English doesn't use these sounds linguistically. That is, English never combines clicks with other sounds to make words or sentences. Xhosa, on the other hand, uses clicks just like any old consonant.
posted by aubilenon at 11:43 AM on January 8, 2015


So cool. Also, "What is occurring, everyone?" is my new standard greeting.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:13 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


everybody
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:22 PM on January 8, 2015


Nice.
Those who have mastered the clicks - any pointers? I can do each of the clicks easily in isolation, but I'm having trouble putting a vowel after it. The click is trying to bring air inward, while the vowel is pushing air out.
posted by Gordafarin at 1:22 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hold your breath while you click, and when you've mastered that, click while saying an extended vowel ("eeeeeeeee").
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:37 PM on January 8, 2015


I can do each of the clicks easily in isolation, but I'm having trouble putting a vowel after it.

This. I can almost do it but now I have to figure out how to do it without drooling. That can't be right.
posted by madamjujujive at 2:09 PM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I can do each of the clicks easily in isolation, but I'm having trouble putting a vowel after it. The click is trying to bring air inward, while the vowel is pushing air out.

It's probably just a lack of practice, although there is a chance you're not creating the clicks correctly.

There should be two separate airstream mechanisms at play. The click draws air in, but doesn't involve the lungs; instead, you create a rarified pocket of air by forming two closures in your mouth with your tongue, then lowering the tongue in a sucking action. Releasing the closures then creates that "popping" sound.

The lungs are what is responsible for the airstream of a vowel. There's no inherent reason that putting a vowel after a click should be harder than putting a vowel after a sound like "k". So, probably, you just need to to do a lot of clicks until it comes more naturally.

I find it easier to do the vowel "ah" than "ee" personally. Try doing click before the vowel, and then work up to doing the click before and after the vowel.

>Hold your breath while you click, and when you've mastered that, click while saying an extended vowel ("eeeeeeeee").

Just to be clear, the click will interrupt the vowel, just like a "k" would, but you should be able to do something like "eeqee" eventually.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:12 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I may have sprained my tongue.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:05 PM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can do each of the clicks easily in isolation, but I'm having trouble putting a vowel after it.

Just think of the click as a consonant like T or K. As you move north, related neighboring Bantu languages like Sotho and Tswana don't utilize clicks, but phonetically related words in those languages often have T or K in places where the click-influenced Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi) languages do.

My favorite siZulu word: uqumqumbelo in which the 'Q" are clicks popped by the tongue on the roof of the mouth's palate. It means "tap dancing."
posted by zaelic at 3:03 AM on January 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


English-speaking horsepeople employ what wikipedia tells me is a "a plain alveolar lateral click" to encourage horses (being ridden, driven, or otherwise worked) to step up the pace. This click doesn't have any vowel sounds around it and it's not a word. It's frequently doubled (click-click) in use. Source: I ride horses, break horses, sell horses, and generally am involved in assorted aspects of horses in the mid-atlantic area of the United States.
posted by which_chick at 10:44 AM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


"What is occurring, everyone?" is my new standard greeting.

Sounds Welsh.
posted by glasseyes at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2015


Seconding which_chick that our Pacific Northwest "dialect" also includes click-click onto mean speed up, but here there are other communication click sounds. I learned from my shoer to use a quiet tock sound to encourage a horse to move over while on the ground, for instance when brushing. There's a single tsk or tsst used as a mild correction, for instance to give a colt time to right himself if he takes the wrong lead, before you pick up a rein or use your leg. I'm betting there are sounds with agreed upon meaning among people who work with horses/other animals in different cultures. Which is kind of off the subject, but hey, HORSES!
posted by BlueHorse at 11:34 AM on January 9, 2015


which_chick, isn't that term called "clucking"? It's been a while since I've had to get a horse's attention, but thought I recalled that being the word people used to describe it.
posted by quin at 11:39 AM on January 9, 2015


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