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See Inside February 2012

Social Clicks: Sounds Associated with African Languages Are Common in English

Linguists find that tongue clicks play a larger role in English than previously thought



Illustrations by Thomas Fuchs

Some Africans click, but English speakers don’t. That’s been the conventional wisdom about click sounds, which serve as regular consonants in Zulu and Xhosa and a few other African languages but which were presumed to just be used in English for encouraging a horse, imitating a kiss, or expressing emotions such as disapproval or amazement. But researchers have recently found that clicks are far more prevalent in the world’s lingua franca than had been thought.

Speakers, it turns out, use clicks for a previously overlooked purpose: as a form of verbal punctuation in between thoughts or phrases. Melissa Wright of Birmingham City University in England recently analyzed click sounds in six large sets of recorded English conversations. She found that speakers used clicks frequently to signal that they were ending one stretch of conversation and shifting to a new one. For example, a speaker might say, “Yeah, that was a great game,” produce a click, then say, “The reason I’m calling is to invite you to dinner tomorrow.”

This pattern, which occurred for both British and American speakers, suggests that clicks have a meaning similar to saying “anyway” or “so.” That is, clicks provide us with a phonetic resource to organize conversations and communicate our intentions to listeners. This finding had previously eluded linguists, whose research often focuses on words and sentences in isolation. Wright was able to uncover the new pattern because she analyzed clicks in the context of complete conversations, suggesting that this method could be important for making new discoveries about the nature of language.

These results, published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, could shake up current thinking about the origin of language. On the basis of linguistic and genetic data, some researchers have claimed that the ancestral population of humans lived in Africa and spoke a click language. As languages farther and farther away from Africa are examined, they argue, clicks become less and less integral, suggesting they are relics that have been lost as humans migrated away from their homeland and diversified their speech. Wright’s research, however, shows that clicks can be important even in a modern language very far from Africa.

This discovery opens up the possibility that clicks are not relics at all but are flexible linguistic tools that can help meet the communication needs of any human population.

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