In recent years, click sounds received much attention in the popular press, where they have been touted as “exotic”. A colleague shared a story of an English-speaking white man from South Africa whose Zulu teacher would never corrected his clicks; when asked why she wouldn’t, she replied, “because it is hopeless.” But few English speakers realize that we are not as unfamiliar with click sounds as it might seem.
For example, we make the dental click tsk-tsk (alternatively written as tut-tut) as a sign of disapproval or pity, the lateral click tchick! – to spur on a horse and the alveolar click clip-clop! – to imitate a horse trotting. And not to forget the bilabial click which we do not really consider a sound at all, but rather a gesture for an air-kiss (except that for the bilabial click the lips are closed flat as for /p/ or /m/ rather than rounded as for /w/).
Technically speaking, clicks are consonants pronounced with two closures (points of contact) in the mouth, one forward and one at the back. The pocket of air enclosed between the two points of contact is rarefied by a sucking action of the tongue. The forward closure is then released, producing what may be the loudest consonants in the language. Clicks are classified according to the position of the forward closure as bilabial (at the lips), dental (at the upper teeth), alveolar (at the alveolar ridge), palatal (at the hard palate) and lateral (at one side of the tongue).
The different types of clicks are transcribed by special IPA symbols that look like a circle with a dot inside it (bilabial click), straight vertical line (dental click), exclamation point (alveolar click), an equal sign with a vertical line through it (palatal click) and two parallel vertical lines (lateral click). You can see these symbols and here the corresponding sounds pronounced in the IPA chart.
Some of these are found in the names of several of the Khoisan languages, such as |Xam, !Xóõ and ||Gana.
Khoisan languages, which are most famous for their click sounds, vary as to which of these click sounds they have: for example, Dahalo has only the dental click, Sesotho only the alveolar click, Sandawe and Hadza have dental, alveolar and lateral clicks only. Bilabial clicks are found in Hõã, Nu, Xam and !Xóõ, while palatal clicks are found in the same four languages, as well as in Korana, Nama and !Kung.
Clicks can also be voiced or voiceless, oral or nasal articulation, aspirated or unaspirated. Since many combinations of these features are possible, some languages have up to 30 different click sounds. This is true, for instance, of the Ju’hoan language which has 30 clicks among its 90 or so sounds.
But Khoisan languages are not the only family that have click sounds. In fact, several of the Bantu languages – Yeyi, Xhosa, Zulu, among others – have click sounds as well. However, only dental, alveolar and lateral clicks are found in Bantu languages (Bantu scholars traditionally use c, q and x to transcribe them).
So try some of these “kiss” and “horse trott” sounds and you can impress your friends by articulating proper Khoisan clicks at the next cocktail party!