LINGUIST List 14.2578

Sat Sep 27 2003

Disc: Re: Genetic Clicks?

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Mark Jones, Re: 14.2567, Disc: Re: Genetic Clicks?

Message 1: Re: 14.2567, Disc: Re: Genetic Clicks?

Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2003 08:31:15 +0000
From: Mark Jones <>
Subject: Re: 14.2567, Disc: Re: Genetic Clicks?

Dear All,

Thanks to Hartmut Traunm´┐Żller for his PDF reference, and his response
to my comments. For me, the revelation that clicks are used in
whispered speech when hunting seals it: this is contamination from
established linguistic usage, though it would be fascinating to know
if hunters do have a different usage of clicks.

I'm as much in the dark as anyone else as to why linguistic clicks are
so common in southern Africa, and non-existent elsewhere (though this
is a slight generalisation; bilabial clicks are not well-attested in
linguistic usage even in southern Africa). Indeed, 'simple' clicks are
not just common: they form the basis for many contrasts in that they
are produced with a great many different 'click accompaniments', such
as glottalisation, frication, nasalisation, voicing etc. in many
languages which have them.

It has been observed that clicks are relatively easy to produce and
that the high amplitude of the signal generated is very salient
perceptually (Ladefoged, 2001, Vowels and Consonants, Blackwell:
157). However, it is also clear that it is not quite so easy to
distinguish between clicks at different places of articulation. This
may be because the click itself is of relatively short duration.

Clicks do not appear to be well embedded within the stream of speech,
to the extent that acoustic cues to their identity are not spread over
several surrounding articulations. The onset and offset to a click are
always velar (occasionally uvular), but the brief duration of the
click itself is not. This means that clicks are not integrated into
the stream of speech acoustically like other speech sounds which will
show some acoustic effects of other neighbouring sounds. They are not
subject to parallel processing, i.e. the use of various cues to each
sound spread across its neighbours, which may aid the rapid decoding
of the speech signal. Perhaps this promotes their perception as
'non-speech' sounds, and works against them being very successful
cross-linguistically. Perhaps...

As for the palate theory, I am sceptical about this. The production of
clicks (like other speech sounds, of course) requires a great many
articulatory movements to be precisely co-ordinated, so presumably
there are many phyisical parameters which could be judged as useful in
click production. I'm unconvinced about the aerodynamic utility of
having a gently sloping palate for click production, as the rarefying
effects of a small lingual movement on the trapped pocket of air are
quite massive regardless of your palate shape. In the production of
ingressive clicks, the tongue tip may retract as the air is rarefied,
which means the actual point of initial contact is less important. In
my own production of clicks, the tongue seal is maintained mainly by
the positive atmospheric pressure, so I think one would have to have a
very prominent and irregularly shaped alveolar ridge (or an inflexible
tongue) to inhibit click production.

The origin and cross-linguistic rarity of clicks are fascinating
subjects, but i feel we are still a long way from finding any answers.

Mark Jones
Department of Linguistics
University of Cambridge
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