Click languages

Clicks are used in several languages of southern and eastern Africa, most famously in Xhosa. The sounds make Xhosa songs and tongue twisters sound amazing.

Miriam Makeba
Anefo / CC0

 Remember the International Phonetic Alphabet, which I wrote about back in November of last year? There’s a section of that human sound chart titled “consonants (non-pulmonic),” and a sub-section of that section titled “clicks.” In English we use clicks all the time, when “tsking” someone, making kissing noises, or when imitating the sound of horses’ hooves. But in a few languages clicks aren’t just sound effects, they’re used as consonants, as a part of the language.

In that previous post, I described the creation of stops or plosives (like [b], [t], or [k]) as sealing off your mouth with the tongue or lips and then releasing the air suddenly. Clicks are similar, except that you close off the mouth in two different places at once, for example by pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth at the front and the back. Then you drop the middle of the tongue down. Because the mouth is completely sealed off, dropping the tongue rarefies the air (essentially, spreading it out), and when you release the front seal it rushes out with a loud noise. That’s a click.

Xhosa, spoken by several million people in South Africa and Zimbabwe, has some of the heaviest use of clicks. The language doesn’t have the most clicks (that title belongs to another heavy-click-use language, Taa, which may have more than a hundred different clicks), but in Xhosa something like one in ten words use a click of some kind. Because of the frequency of clicks, you can make some pretty amazing tongue twisters in Xhosa:

The presence of clicks also make Xhosa songs distinctive. Perhaps the most famous song incorporating clicks is the traditional wedding song Qongqothwane. Here’s a live performance by Miriam Makeba:

The name of this song translates, appropriately, as “knock-knock beetles.”

2 Replies to “Click languages”

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