With amazing names like ǂXóõ, ǂHõã and !Kung, you know there has to be something special about these languages before you even hear them. Listen to this short lesson in the South African language of Xhosa to get an idea of what it is (if you want to throw yourself in at the deep end, skip to 1:27):
Yes – that is really how they sound. Although clicks are often used in isolation in English to express disapproval (‘tut tut’) and to get horses to go faster, a click language requires you to make these noises as part of a word. (Written down, different types of click are represented by different characters, such as ‘!’ or ‘ǂ’.) The result is a large variety of possible sounds – ǂXóõ, for instance, has 43 consonants with clicks alone!
Unpronounceable though they may be, there are a number of click languages widely spoken in southern Africa. Around 7.9 million people speak Xhosa (including Nelson Mandela) – that’s around 18% of the South African population. That is in contrast, however, to another click language, N|uu, which only has about 10 remaining speakers (of whom Nelson Mandela is not one). For years, linguists were unable to even work out what sounds speakers of N|uu were making. That is, until they devised this ultrasonic apparatus to measure the position of the tongue:
As such amazing languages die out, we lose perhaps our closest connection to the sounds of the earliest human communication. But Xhosa, at least, is adamantly part of modern South Africa. Nothing illustrates that better than a bit of Xhosa rap (there’s a good bit of clicking at 2:05 and 3:48):
If you’re surprised to hear a click language in popular music, you obviously haven’t heard Click Song by Miriam Makeba, performed here in 1966:
What some more? Have a look at another amazing language.