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Review of  Click Consonants

Reviewer: Michael C. Cahill
Book Title: Click Consonants
Book Author: Bonny Sands
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Issue Number: 32.2603

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In a book titled “Click Consonants,” with no other subtitle or other indication of limitations, one would expect to find all of one’s questions and ideas about clicks answered. These would include both naïve and more sophisticated questions like: What exactly ARE clicks? Are we talking about “real contrastive consonants” or just noises? How many kinds of clicks are there? How rare are phonemic clicks? Can they be allophones of some other consonant? What are the details of their articulation and acoustics? Do they function just like other consonants in a phonology, or do they exhibit behaviors as strange as their production? Do they have formal features in common with other consonants, and if so, do they interact with those? Historically, how did clicks develop? If they disappear, do they have common reflexes? How do children learn to produce clicks, and do they develop later than other consonants? (I listed these before I read the book.)

Almost all of these are addressed in this volume to a greater or lesser degree.

Chapter 1, “Click Consonants: an Introduction,” by Bonny Sands (73 pages), defines the parameters of the book, defining and describing the five basic click types – (ʘ, ǀ, ǁ, ǃ, ǂ) – bilabial, dental, lateral, (post-)alveolar, palatal. Sands reviews the tremendous variety of detailed modifications these five symbols can cover, as well as click varieties not covered by these symbols, illustrating with waveforms, spectrograms, palatograms, and high-speed ultrasound traces. She then examines the “accompaniments” that the basic click types can have – involving additional gestures such as aspiration, voicing, nasalization, various dorsal accompaniments, and so on. (A “delayed aspirated click” was a new one for me.) She also reviews proposals for representing clicks with accompaniments in orthographies, both practical and for facilitating cross-linguistic comparisons. The areal and familial distributions of the couple of dozen existing click languages are presented, along with some caveats as to defining a “click language” in terms of lexical frequency and varying dialects. She reviews the types of studies that have been done on clicks; phonetic studies predominate, but also other types of studies, which are discussed in more detail in other chapters in this volume. The 20 pages of references, much more extensive than other chapters, reflect the wide range of the issues discussed in this thorough introductory chapter.

Chapter 2, “Click Phonology,” the second-to-longest chapter (54 pages), by William Bennett, notes that while the phonetics of click articulation are increasingly well-understood, phonological representations have lagged behind. Attempting to relate click accompaniments to more traditional phonological classes, for example, is a challenge, to put it mildly. Documentation of alternations, a main source of evidence for phonological identity of other segments, is “sparse” for clicks, and Bennett reviews alternations of clicks and non-clicks, including loss and replacement of clicks, modification of accompaniments, and harmony, in a few languages. These all deal directly with clicks, but he also presents data showing the effect that clicks can have on other surrounding sounds, as well as the distributional restriction that commonly limits clicks to word-initial position. Unfortunately, these do not provide the degree of robust evidence we would like to have for phonological representation of clicks. Another source of information is typological patterns, e.g. nasality and place, which indicate that nasality in clicks is not the same as nasality in other segments. How to phonologically represent the distinction between clicks and non-clicks, whether they are unitary or a cluster, has sparked a few proposals, and Bennett discusses the cluster approaches in some detail. The advantage of a cluster analysis is that it reduces the number of independent units, but its explanatory power is small, and the question is far from settled.

Chapter 3, “The Interaction between Click Consonants and Tone in Tsua,” by Timothy Mathes (26 pages), discusses a topic I hadn’t previously considered: tone and clitics. Depression of tone by voiced obstruents is well-known, by aspirated stops less common, and by /h/ rarer still, but all three occur in Tsua. Tsua has dental, palatal, alveolar, and lateral clicks, with possible voicing, nasal, and aspirated accompaniments. Palatal and alveolar clicks lack some of these accompaniments, and these are the click types that are most often replaced by stops historically. Mathes shows that tone is depressed after voiced or aspirated clicks, with cross-linguistic comparisons and pitch traces. However, some expected pitch depressions do not occur, and these are summarized in the hypothesis “Tsua voiced obstruents that were nasal sonorants or nasalized clicks historically are not depressors synchronically.” This brings out the importance of comparative lexical data, and also raises questions about why aspiration raises pitch in some languages and lowers it in others.

Chapter 4 is “Click Loss and Click Insertion in Fwe,” by Hilde Gunnink (22 pages). Fwe has only 87 known click words, all listed in an Appendix. Voicing and nasality are contrastive in these, but notably, click TYPE is not – the place of articulation varies from speaker to speaker, and thus in Fwe, click types do not contrast. Also interesting is that clicks can vary with velar obstruents, retaining their features of voicing and nasality, thus ǀ ~ k, ᵍǀ ~ g, and ᵑǀ ~ ŋ, with all speakers exhibiting this to some degree. However, these synchronic substitutions are not the full story; clicks historically have been inserted or lost which do not follow the click/velar pattern.

Chapter 5, “Perception of Non-native Click Consonant Contrasts: Implications for Theories of Speech Perception,” by Catharine Best (30 pages), notes findings that may surprise those who have not followed her other papers. After reviewing the high perceptual salience of clicks and characteristics of three models of speech perception (including her own Perceptual Assimilation Model), she presents experimental findings on click perception, finding that speakers of non-click languages actually do quite well in distinguishing click types, though they do not identify them as speech sounds. Speakers of click language A did identify clicks from click language B as consonants, but interpreted them in light of their own language’s click inventory, and thus actually did less well on discriminating click varieties than non-click language speakers. Studies on both adults and infants were described in detail.

Chapter 6, “Studying Clicks using Real-Time MRI,” by the team of Michael Proctor, Yinghus Zhu, Adam Lammert, Asterios Toutios, Bonny Sands, and Shrikanth Narayanan (30 pages), reports their initial results from using real-time Magnetic Resonance Imaging (rtMRI) to study the details of the gestures of click production in Khoekhoegowab, siSwati, and the paralinguistic production of a “beatbox” musician (one subject each). The imaging reveals details of how rarefaction is achieved, in terms of location and movement of articulators, including different parts of the tongue. The rtMRI has advantages over other imaging methods (palatography, ultrasound) in that a fuller image of articulators is available. A good number of rtMRI images are presented.

Chapter 7, “Recording and Measuring Acoustic Attributes of Clicks,” by Sean Fulop and Richard Wright (34 pages), is a bit of a field elicitation description for how to deal with clicks, and much of this is useful for non-clicks as well. They start with what qualities to look for in selection of language consultants, and practical tips for elicitation, especially wordlists (not as natural as spontaneous group conversation, but more controlled). They indicate what parameters in Praat (largely applicable to other software as well) are helpful for maximum usefulness in examining clicks. The major part of this chapter shows how different graphs (exemplified) can aid in determining place of articulation, nasality, voicing, murmur, glottalization, and distinguishing clusters. More technical recording considerations are included in an Appendix.

Chapter 8 is the brief (16 pages) “Nasalized Accompaniments in Proto-Khoe and in Khwe,” by E.D. Elderkin. Khwe and some other languages have a nasalized click, where nasalization persists until the onset of the following vowel, and a prenasalized click, where nasalization ceases before the click is released. These are in complementary distribution, with the fully nasalized click occurring when the rhyme of the syllable is nasal. Proto-Khoe is reconstructed with one nasal click, and reflexes in daughter languages are presented.

Chapter 9, “Click Loss in Koe-Kwadi,” is the first of two chapters by Anne-Maria Fehn (44 pages). It first gives a survey of studies and background on click loss (historical replacement of a click with a non-click), including phonetics of loss (with discussion of the term “weakening”). She then moves to a thorough and data-rich discussion of what Fehn calls “most likely the best-known case of click loss in the literature,” the loss of alveolar (ǃ) and palatal (ǂ) in Kalahari Khoe, with reflexes retaining features of accompaniments (*ǃ > k, *gǃ > g, *ǃh > kh, etc.). It also presents the lesser-known cases of the virtually extinct but previously recorded Kwadi and also Sesfonein Damara, which also exemplifies retention of a secondary articulation when dropping a click. Fehn ends with a discussion of sociolinguistic factors that affect click loss.

Chapter 10, “Click Replacement and Loss in Ju,” also by Anne-Maria Fehn (19 pages), follows the previous chapter’s foundation, but with different languages, the Ju cluster. Proto-Ju had five clicks, including the retroflex click (ǃǃ), and these are reduced to four in both the Southeastern and Northwestern varieties that are focused on here (the Central varieties retained all five.)

Chapter 11 is “Production of Click Sounds in Acquired Apraxia of Speech: a View to the Motoric Nature of the Disorder,” (28 pages) by Anita van der Merwe and Mollie Steyn. Apraxia of speech (AOS) is a speech motor planning disorder, and so the complexity of articulation of clicks could shed light on the details of such motor planning. After discussing what AOS is, the paper presents a study which examined in narrow phonetic detail the production of three click types in Zulu, by a speaker who has AOS. Total click duration, click burst duration, and click release were measured. The speaker pronounced each stimulus incorrectly at least once, and waveforms and spectrograms show the comparison between this subject and a “typical” Zulu speaker. Distortion, deletion and substitution of the click were the types of errors produced, similar to other AOS studies. It is suggested that higher motor complexity of the task (of clicks) contributed to the high rate of errors.

Chapter 12 is “The ArtiVark Click Study: Documenting Click Production and Substitution Strategies by Learners in a Large Phonetic Training and Vocal Tract Imaging study,” by Scott Moisik, and Dan Dediu (33 pages). This study, using MRI and intraoral scanning, aims to determine how vocal tract shape (variable across individuals) influences the ability to learn to produce clicks. (It has been suggested that Khoisan speakers have a palate shape that is favorable for this, and this may help explain the geographical/populational distribution of clicks.) Participants were taught how to produce intervocalic clicks (aǀa and aǃa), with variable success rates. Quite detailed description of individuals and a multiplicity of MRI graphics yielded a great deal of information on the mechanisms that learners employ to produce clicks. However, the original question of interrelatedness of hard palate shape and ease of learning clicks still remains, with the investigators planning further studies.

Chapter 13, “Notes on Child Acquisition of Clicks in Hadza,” by Kirk Miller, very briefly (4 pages) notes informal observations by a native speaker that children learn at least some clicks before they learn /s/. Clicks are assumed to be marked and thus expected to be acquired late, but the fact that clicks are not learned late has implications for theories on markedness that depend on children’s acquisition ages.

Chapter 14, “Paralinguistic Use of Clicks in Chad,” by Florian Lionnet, (16 pages) brings up the point that clicks are used outside the phonemic inventory of a language. As such, these are not used in individual words, but in normal conversations. In the Laal language, he notes a dental click that expresses negation or a negative feeling, and a lateral click which expresses approval or encouragement to continue speaking. A “back-released velar click,” not one of the basic click types and not mentioned by any other contributor, has the same functions as the lateral click and has been noted by a few others (I have heard this in Ghana myself). Finally, a “bilabial fricated” click expresses disapproval. He concludes with a reference to the WALS database list of other African languages with paralinguistic clicks (which do not seem to be languages which have them as part of their consonantal inventory).

The brief (6 pages) Chapter 15, “False Alarms: Spurious Reports of Click Consonants,” by Kirk Miller, first lists some languages constructed for science fiction scenarios. The main source of false alarms that he documents, however, is when either the public, or in some cases, linguists of the past, have confused clicks with ejectives.

There are also two useful indices: one of languages mentioned, and a general one that lists both topics and people.


Does this volume answer the somewhat naïve questions I raised at the beginning? Mostly, yes. There is a great deal of phonetic detail in these chapters, enough to satisfy all but the most die-hard enthusiast. The phonology is admittedly less advanced, and information on child language acquisition is sparse. There is a good deal of historical discussion, but most of it deals with click loss, with very little of the origins of clicks, except for Fehn’s mention (p292) that the underlying assumption is that clicks are “a relic from early human languages that has been retained in small pockets of eastern and southern Africa, but was lost in the majority of the world’s other languages.” There are also a few mentions of bilabial clicks having their origins in labial-velar stops, but these are optimistic at best and some of the mentions misrepresent the primary references.

Some chapters are summaries of knowledge that would be suitable for a Handbook, while others are language-specific enough, even first reports of studies, that they would feel at home as journal articles. A valuable contribution of a volume of this sort is that it points to primary sources for further information, and all of the chapters do this well.

Suggestions for improvement are few. The volume would have benefited from more cross-referencing between chapters. Some authors (Bennett, Gunnink at least, as well as Sands’ Introduction) did this a bit, but not all. Also, a list of typological implicational inventories would have been nice. What is the most common click type, and if a language has click type A, what are the chances of its having click type B or C? Fehn’s Figure 9.1 comes close, with a useful chart of 18 languages with their click types and frequencies.

In terms of production, the book is well edited – I did not find any typographical errors (though if such were in the detailed phonetic transcriptions, these would not be apparent on first glance!). The color included in many of the graphics and diagrams was quite helpful in reading these easily – and much appreciated (though it no doubt contributed to the $166 price tag for either hardback or e-book).

This summary review does not begin to do justice to the depth and detail of the contributions to this volume. This is definitely a state of the art book. At least some of the issues on clicks are not universally accepted or settled, so for some of the points, this cannot be called a summary of accepted truth as would be typical in a “handbook” type of publication. Still, for those wanting an in-depth look at many of the issues regarding clicks, including some in-depth case studies of individual languages, this volume will be a very useful place to look.
Michael Cahill (Ph.D. Ohio State University) has been interested in multiply-articulated consonants for some time, though concentrating mostly on labial-velar obstruents. He also has interests in tone, especially in African languages. Finally, as SIL International's Orthography Services Coordinator, he is learning more and more about the complex interactions of linguistic and of non-linguistic factors in newly-developed orthographies.