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Summary Details

Query:   Click Origins
Author:  Mark Jones
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Historical Linguistics

Summary:   Regarding query:

Dear all,

Some time ago I posted a query asking for details on hypotheses that click
consonants in Khoisan languages may have originated from labial-velar stops
(LINGUIST List: Vol-16-481. Wed Feb 16 2005).

Both labial-velar stops and labial clicks involve velar and labial
constriction. A superficial articulatory parallel is clear, though it
should be noted that labial clicks are apparently the rarest of all clicks
in terms of places of articulation. I attributed the hypothesis that there
might be a connection to Klaus Kohler (1998: 267), who speculates
positively about it, and Peter Ladefoged and Ian Maddieson (1996: 340), who
take pains to draw a clear distinction between the phonetic realisation of
labial-velars and similar articulatory manoeuvres in labial clicks.

My query asked whether anyone had any further information about this
hypothesis, and also about the possible origins of the labial-velars
themselves, including fortition of a labial-velar approximant.

Marie-Lucie Tarpent at the Department of Modern Languages, Mount Saint
Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada commented on her
impressions of strongly articulated /w/ as an idiosyncrasy in some speakers
of English, an articulation which she imagined was close to that required
for a labial-velar stop. Marie-Lucie also pointed out that when Romance
languages borrowed words such as ‘war’ from Germanic speaking tribes
(possible *werra), the borrowing involved a /gw/ cluster, e.g. Spanish
‘guerra’, French ‘guerre’(now both simply initial /g/) and Italian ‘guerra’
(still /gw/).

More Canadian responses, this time from Dr. Bruce Connell at York
University, Toronto, who set out the orthodox view of the origins of
labial-velar stops. These originate from increasing overlap of sequential
velar and labial gestures: kua > kwa > kpa. This developmental sequence, as
well pw, bw > kp, gb, is also mentioned by Dr Mike Cahill at SIL
International in Dallas, Texas, USA. More details can be found in:

Cahill, M. (1999). “Aspects of the phonology of labial-velar stops.”
Studies in African Languages 28.2: 155-184

Connell B (1994). “The structure of labial-velar stops.” Journal of
Phonetics, 22: 441-476

Connell B (1998/9). “Feature geometry and the formation of labial-velars: a
reply to Mutaka and Ebobissé.” Journal of West African Languages and
Linguistics, 27.1: 17-32.

Ponelis, F. (1974). “On the dynamics of velarization and labialization:
Some Bantu evidence.” Studies in African Linguistics, 5.1: 27-58.

Bruce Connell mentioned evidence for this process in Igbo dialect
variation, and also occasional realisations of /w/ as the reflex of /gb/.
On the hypothesis that clicks might arise from labial-velar stops, Bruce
pointed out that if this were the case, we might expect to find that clicks
were more common than they are.

Mike Cahill commented that /kp/ and /gb/ may both merge as /gb/, or become
/p/ and /b/. A development to velars, i.e. /kp/ > /k/ etc., is apparently
less frequent. Mike also pointed out that voiced labial-velars may be
produced with an implosive airstream (larynx lowering). On the
click-labial-velar hypothesis, Mike noted that no languages have both, but
that if labial clicks do originate from some kind of articulatory mistiming
of the labial and velar gestures, a shift from labial click to other click
types is then required.

The origin of labial-velars seems agreed as originating from increasing
overlap between labial/velar stops and a following /u/ or /w/. It should be
noted that this gestural overlap by and of itself would not result in two
simultaneous closures – some ‘gestural enhancement’ must also occur to
result in complete labial occlusion in /kp, gb/ from labial approximation
for /w/ in /kw, gw/, and to result in complete velar occlusion in /kp, gb/
from velar approximation for /w/ in /pw, bw/.

The point made in the query and echoed by Mike Cahill – that any clicks
resulting from labial-velar stops would be labial, and that labial clicks
are themselves rare – remains a problem, though one which can be countered
in two ways:

1) Perceptual reanalysis of click place of articulation – this does happen
in attested cases of variation with click places of articulation (“click
replacement” see Traill and Vossen 1997);

2) Triple closures with labial clicks, producing posterior and anterior
lingual closures at the same time as labial closure (noted in Ladefoged and
Maddieson 1996: 352).

The rarity of labial clicks could then be due to them being the source of
other click types. But then we are still faced with the recurring problem,
noted again by Bruce Connell, of why clicks are not more widespread.

Many thanks to the respondents for their assistance. Watch this space for
more details:

Mark J. Jones


Kohler, Klaus J. (1998). “The development of sound systems in human
language.” In James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, and Chris Knight
(eds.) Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Cambridge, UK:
CambridgeUniversity Press, pp. 265-278.

Ladefoged, Peter, and Ian Maddieson (1996). Sounds of the World's
Languages. Blackwells.

Traill, Anthony, and Rainer Vossen. (1997). “Sound change in the Khoisan
languages: new data on click loss and click replacement.” Journal of
African Languages and Linguistics 18: 21-56.

LL Issue: 16.941
Date Posted: 28-Mar-2005
Original Query: Read original query


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