LINGUIST List 14.2538

Wed Sep 24 2003

Disc: Genetic Clicks?

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Mark Jones, Re: 14.2532, Disc: Re: Genetic clicks?
  2. Roger Lass, Re: 14.2531, Disc: New: Genetic clicks?
  3. Hartmut Traunmuller, Genetic clicks?

Message 1: Re: 14.2532, Disc: Re: Genetic clicks?

Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2003 07:50:51 +0000
From: Mark Jones <>
Subject: Re: 14.2532, Disc: Re: Genetic clicks?

Dear all,

I heard about this story a while back from a friend (a vet), and was
actually thinking of asking for more information from the List at some

I'm no Khoisanist, but I have been led to believe by work by Bonny
Sands and others that Khoisan is not a genetic grouping in the sense
that Indo-European is, and further, that although the evidence for a
genetic linguistic relationship is not great, there is the likelihood
of some contact in the past with the East African languages which
exhibit clicks. It seems that all linguistic clicks have the same
ultimate origin, whether the languages in which they are found today
have borrowed from that source or are related to it. So this claim is
nothing new, though the associated dating may be.

The idea that linguistic click sounds may emerge from a paralinguistic
usage is interesting, but as paralinguistic clicks are so widespread,
it seems odd that more languages have not adopted clicks as linguistic
entities, especially given the way that clicks make up a large
proportion of the contrasts in Khoisan languages today. Note that
clicks have also been borrowed into some of the neighbouring Nguni
languages, like Xhosa, another observation which suggests clicks are
(relatively) easily adopted. More easily than ejectives or implosives
or voiceless interdental fricatives (IPA [theta]), for example.

Furthermore, the use of clicks as a kind of hunting talk is something which 
I don't like intuitively for all kinds of reasons:

1) Click sounds are likely to provoke a similar response in all
mammalian auditory systems, so it is not the case that animals 'can't
hear them', though there is some evidence that clicks are processed by
the right hemisphere of the brain by speakers of non-click languages,
making them perhaps 'non-linguistic' sounds. Certainly they are high
amplitude sounds which are not hard to hear. It also seems that many
speakers of non-click languages intuitively 'use' clicks to attract
the attention of other mammals (dogs, cats, I do it to squirrels),
another point which suggests that it is not the case that animals
ignore them. Maybe they are used by the tribes in question not so much
because of the animals' response, but because they carry a long
way. But that of course suggests that the clicks are used for the
hunters' benefit, not on account of the animals, and that might
suggest that the hunters already use clicks when *not* hunting...

2) All homo sapiens hunt - why haven't more hunters used clicks?
(perhaps they have, but I think we would know....). Hunters seem to
use sign language more, as do these tribes;

3) And a question for the Khoisanists and anthropologists working on
these communities: how many of these communities use clicks when
hunting, and how are the clicks used? Is this the only tribe to do so?
Is it a case of the clicks being used in an altered version of the
linguistic system, or do they function in a completely novel way? What
is the system of 'hunting speech' and how does it relate to 'normal'
speech? For example, do clicks appear embedded in 'whispered' speech,
or with the same distribution in lexical items as in non-hunting

It also seems that clicks, so successful within the languages which
have them linguistically, must have developed relatively recently as
linguistic sounds, otherwise more languages (at diverse locations
across the world) would have them.

On the basis of the points above, I would hazard a guess that what we
have here is a case of the everyday linguistic usage of clicks
contaminating hunting usage, rather than the other way round.


Mark Jones
Department of Linguistics
University of Cambridge
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Message 2: Re: 14.2531, Disc: New: Genetic clicks?

Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2003 11:21:49 +0200
From: Roger Lass <>
Subject: Re: 14.2531, Disc: New: Genetic clicks?

But in the case of Khoe and San (there is really no family 'Khoisan')
and Nguni (S Bantu) there is a known contact history, which is not the
case in the 'genetic click' examples.

But the argument for retention is weak, given the time span that must
have elapsed. Typology is never a genetic marker except in cases of
desperation, and clicks also occur in one language in the S Pacific (I
think an 'avoidance' langauge, but can't remember - someone must know
the details).

In addition, considering that the click mechanism is the one that
babies use to suckle, the convergent invention of sounds with a
velaric ingressive airstream would seem to be quite likely. Strange in
fact that it doesn't happen more often, since clicks are wonderful:
you can superimpose other airstreams on them, coarticulate,
breathy-voice them, aspirate them. They're quite as good as egressive
stops for doing linguistic things with.


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Message 3: Genetic clicks?

Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2003 12:39:39 +0200
From: Hartmut Traunmuller <>
Subject: Genetic clicks?

Although the paper by Alex Knight et al. (03) is relevant and valuable
in discussions of the origin and diffusion of clicks, the authors'
attempt to interpret the presence of clicks in Hadza as well as in
South African Khoisan as relics of a human protolanguage is in no way
convincing. Actually, the authors only claim that their data are not
incompatible with this possibility. The fact that clicks are used in
cooperative hunting when normal speech might scare off prey, which is
also reported by Knight et al., suggests, instead, a predisposition of
clicks to spread into languages of other hunter-gatherers, independent
of genetic relations. According to a less spectacular view
(TraunmFCller, 03), clicks, and also fricatives, are linguistic
innovations that were not present in early forms of human speech.

Tore Janson and Alec Knight made me aware of one minor and one major
deficiency in my conferecne contribution (Traunm�ller, 03).

1. Some Bantu languages that have adopted clicks do not belong to the

2. There is no conflict between the assumption that the ancestors of
all present humans once spoke a common protolanguage and the
assumption that there was substantial variation at each stage in
development of proto-language. It may be that all present human
languages descend from a common protolanguage, while the primitive
languages of those who spoke differently at that time have died out.


Knight, A., Underhill, P.A., Mortensen, H.M., Zhivotovsky, L.A., Lin,
A.A., Henn, B.M., Louis, D., Ruhlen, M. & Mountain, J.L. (03) African
Y chromosome and mtDNA divergence provides insight into the history of
click languages, Current Biology, 13, 464-473.

Traunm�ller, H. (03) Clicks and the idea of a human protolanguage,
Phonum 9: 1 - 4 (UmeE5 University, Dept. of Philosophy and

Hartmut Traunm�ller
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