LINGUIST List 14.2654

Wed Oct 1 2003

Disc: Re: Genetic clicks

Editor for this issue: Sarah Murray <>


  1. Daniel Everett, Genetic Clicks (and channels of discourse)
  2. Larry Trask, Disc: Re: Genetic clicks

Message 1: Genetic Clicks (and channels of discourse)

Date: Wed, 01 Oct 2003 04:44:34 +0000
From: Daniel Everett <>
Subject: Genetic Clicks (and channels of discourse)

The discussion on genetic clicks has been thought-provoking, with
numerous useful comments. Clicks could be like other, even rarer
sounds. For example, there are various languages with sui generis
sounds, as Peter Ladefoged and I pointed out a few years ago in our
brief Language article, The problem of phonetic rarities. Where do
these sounds come from? The Piraha egressive lateral, the Wari & Oro
Win voiceless alveolar-bilabial trill, and other sounds present a
problem for the idea that phonological/phonetic theory alone is
sufficient to predicting (say, through distinctive feature theory),
what sounds are possible in human languages. There will likely always
be (rare) anomalies. Perhaps they arise from a combination of cultural
and linguistic motivations - sounds that people like the sound of just
make it into the language. Sort of the linguistic counterpart to
sexual (sexy/liked sounds) vs. natural (UG-type) selection. Then once
a sound is in a language, one can imagine it spreading for a variety
of reasons to other languages.

The use of clicks in hunting seems, as Marc Jones points out, more
likely related to communication in a hunting situation, rather than
hunting per se, since they are indeed loud. In my experience,
hunter-gathers make more noise than you might otherwise expect while
they hunt (not too much noise, though - Piraha have made me stand idle
and alone in the jungle for hours because my boots made too much
noise, while they went on ahead to hunt). The Piraha switch to whistle
speech while hunting. But not to be quieter, from what I can tell. It
is just 'men talk' in a 'man activity'. Perhaps such cultural
considerations, rather than linguistic factors, are primarily
responsible for clicks and other sui generis or very rare sounds.

Dan Everett 
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Message 2: Disc: Re: Genetic clicks

Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2003 12:48:01 +0100
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Disc: Re: Genetic clicks

Why do non-linguists get so excited about clicks? Why, in particular,
on encountering clicks, do they immediately reach for the most
dramatic hypothesis they can think of? ("Clicks were present in
Proto-Human, and those languages that have them have preserved them
unchanged for 150,000 years or more.")

It seems to me that a far more humdrum hypothesis is all that we need
to explain everything of interest:

Before the Bantu expansion, clicks were an areal feature of the
southern half of Africa.

We know that clicks can be readily borrowed. So there is no obstacle
to seeing clicks, of whatever origin, as spreading by contact over a
large part of Africa, much as tones have spread (and are spreading)
over a large part of eastern and southeastern Asia.

The non-Bantu click languages of today, then, are no more than
remnants: the survivors of the earlier languages of the region. They
have clicks because clicks were widespread before the Bantu languages
arrived. They have clicks purely because of their geographical
location, and the genetic background of their speakers is of no

What does this view fail to explain? Why do we need more dramatic

Larry Trask
Linguistics and English Language
School of Humanities
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QN
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