Click Words in Khoisian and Bantu Languages

Image 8We think of English as a versatile language, able to adapt foreign words and phrases like nobody’s business.  But when examined closer, English can be surprisingly limited in some ways, most of the time phonetically.  For example, our alphabet has only 26 letters (and four of those—c, j, q, and x—are superfluous, serving only to complicate the way we spell words,) to Arabic’s 28 and Russian’s 33.  There are many sounds that we as English speakers don’t use and therefore are often unable to deal with when speaking a foreign language.  This includes the rolled R, spelled as rr in Spanish and p in Russian, the German’s guttural “ch” sound, spelled in Russian as x and Hebrew as כ, and the Arabic غ pronounced “gh,” similar to the French pronunciation of r.  A vowel sound I’ve always had trouble with is the Russian Ы which has no equivalent in English, but is virtually the same as the ue in the French word “rue”  (I’ve found I can make a reasonable facsimile of the sound by making a gulping motion, but leaving my mouth open).

Even more exotic to the English-accustomed ear and really any western language, are click words, widely used among languages in southern Africa. For an introduction to the way click words are used, check out Qongqothwane, a Xhosa wedding song sung by Miriam Makeba. These sounds exist in English, and are referred to as “clucking” or “tutting,” generally only used as sounds towards horses or chickens, or to express passive-aggressive disapproval.  But in languages of the Khoisian and Bantu families, these sounds are organic parts of speech, used in certain words like we would use consonants.

Image 10Native to the Khoisian languages, click words have spread to various Bantu languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa, only in the past few centuries.  There are many theories as to why this linguistic migration occurred, one of which is that Bantu tribes conquered Khoisian tribes and married the women, resulting in children taking on the clicks of their mothers’ language and ascribing it to their fathers’ language.  Another theory suggests that speaking in clicks was a way to avoid speaking certain words out of respect; a sense of etiquette known as ukuhlonipha, “to respect,” in Zulu would forbid someone from speaking the name of an elder, or even any words that sound like that elder’s name.  Thus, clicks became a way of disguising the sound of such taboo words, which eventually evolved into words with clicks having more polite or high-class connotations than the same words without clicks.

While click words are most noted to the languages of southern Africa, there are three languages of East Africa that use them as well: Sandawe and Hadza, from Tanzania and Dahalo, from Kenya.  There is even an indigenous language in Australia, Lardil, that uses a ritual code called Damin that uses clicks as parts of speech, though this is the only non-African language known to use click words.  While they may make an English-speaker feel awkward and clumsy when attempting to speak them, they are a fascinating and unique aspect of our linguistic heritage.

Do you have any experience with languages that use click words?