The Ancient Click Languages of Southern Africa – when and why did they evolve?
There are about 30 languages in the world that use clicks as consonants. Nearly all of these are found in Southern Africa, particularly in Namibia, with a small amount found in Eastern Africa as well. The only language outside of Africa that uses clicks as consonants is Damin, a subset of Lardil, which is spoken by aboriginals on Mornington Island in Northern Australia. (1)
Speakers of other languages often use clicks. For example when English speakers are expressing disappointment (tut-tut) or when they are imitating a horse (clip-clop). However, in these cases the clicks are considered paralinguistic; they are not associated with words.
What is a click?
Creating a pocket of air in your mouth and then opening that pocket quickly produces a click. Clicks come in many different forms, for example:
– Dental Clicks (tut-tut) = using the tongue and the teeth to create the pocket of air. English speakers use Dental clicks when expressing disappointment (tut-tut)
– Lateral Clicks (Tchick) = The sound generated from the click travels around the side of the tongue so when you create this type of click you widen your mouth to make space for the sound (encouraging a horse)
– Alveolar Clicks (Clip-Clop) = Using the Alveolar ridge (part of the palate) and the tongue to create the pocket of air. This acts as an onomatopoeic sound for a horse trotting. (1)
In click languages these sounds are used as consonants (the same way that English speakers use sounds like ‘b’ or ‘s’). In the click language Nama the word ‘!khas’ (where ! = alveolar click) means ‘flower’.
When did clicks appear?
Click languages are commonly thought of as ancient. Some anthropologists and linguists think that clicks are relics of the ‘mother tongue’, the hypothetical first language spoken by our ancestors. There is an obvious reason why this is hypothesized, few ethnic groups still practice hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but among those that do click languages are common (e.g. San Bushmen of the Kalahari). Genetic studies place these click-speaking hunter-gatherers at the base of the human family tree (2).
There are more pieces of evidence that support the claim that clicks would have been spoken in the early history of our species:
1) The click languages of Southern Africa (Khoisan languages) are among the most diverse languages in the world. Generally speaking the more diverse something is the longer it has been around. (3)
2) When DNA analysis was carried out on the click language users of Southern Africa and the click language users of Eastern Africa it was found that these two groups of people were about as distantly related as was possible in our species. The two groups shared a common ancestor close to the root of the tree of humankind and there are some who think that that ancestor also used clicks in their language. (4)
3) As we have seen, there is a click language found in Australia as well. Australia was one of the first places colonized (some 50,000 years ago) by our species when we left Africa, and because clicks are found there this suggests that click languages predate this migration of people. (5)
However, there is a big assumption here – that clicks were only invented for use in language once and that all other languages have since lost them (except for paralinguistic usage). Given that all children can easily create these sounds, this does seem a bit unlikely and there is obviously great debate around the subject.
Why did click language evolve?
If clicks were used in the ‘mother tongue’ and have since been lost by most languages on the planet then why do people like the San Bushmen still use them?
One possible explanation is that by using clicks people can increase their hunting success. Some have said that clicks are more natural noises compared to the whispers and that they are more appropriate for communication while hunting in a savanna habitat due to their acoustics.
However, in practice the people who speak click languages and still hunt do not speak while hunting, instead they use hand signals and if they cannot see each other they use whistles (imitating birds) to communicate. (6)
Is the end near for click languages?
Click languages and the people who speak them are dropping in numbers. However, there is still hope. Nama uses four types of clicks and is one of the national languages of Namibia. It has over 200,000 speakers and is so popular that it is taught in universities and even used in the media. Part of its success is that it has a strong written record, which is unfortunately missing from most click languages around the world. (1)
The majority of the remaining click languages are endangered. Conscious efforts are being made to ensure that these unique forms of communication are being passed on from one generation to the next. If they do not continue to receive protection then we may lose them for good. And that would be an awful shame, tut-tut.
4) Tishkoff, S., Gonder, M., Henn, B., Mortensen, H., Knight, A., Gignoux, C., Fernandopulle, N., Lema, G., Nyambo, T., Ramakrishnan, U., Reed, F. and Mountain, J. (2007). History of Click-Speaking Populations of Africa Inferred from mtDNA and Y Chromosome Genetic Variation. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 24(10), pp.2180-2195.
6) Botha, R. and Knight, C. (2009). The cradle of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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