One of the answers for yesterday’s quiz was Xhosa. Xhosa is spoken by almost 8 million people and is one of the official languages of South Africa; among language-loving folks, it’s probably most famous for its fabulous repertoire of click consonants. Xhosa isn’t the only language with clicks, and its twenty-one (twenty-one!) different clicks aren’t even the most found in one language. A small language in Botswana has eighty-three. That language is alternatively spelled Taa or !Xoon or ǃXóõ, and no, there is no way you or I or anyone else can pronounce that correctly.
I’m really interested in phonology, so I’ve always been fascinated by click consonants. They’re so rare, and represent a potential for sound-making that most people would never have even imagined. For me, things like click consonants show that human languages can do almost anything. They’re also incredibly difficult for non-native speakers to get right, and to the untrained ear it’s hard to imagine how those clicks might encode meaning like the sounds we’re used to.
Recently I’ve also discovered the unique power click consonants have for songwriters. Lyricists who speak languages with clicks can manipulate those percussive sounds, so that their words not only carry meaning but also participate in the music-making of the song.
Here is an example from a lady named Miriam Makeba, a legendary Xhosa speaker, singer, and human rights activist. The video quality isn’t the best, but this is the best introduction to clicks you’ll ever find, and it’s a great song too.