Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
What’s the most exotic, strange-sounding language you’ve ever heard? I recently popped this question to a group of English speakers at a cocktail party. Norwegian and Finnish were strong contenders for the title, but everyone agreed that the prize had to go to African “click languages” like the Bantu language Xhosa (spoken by Nelson Mandela) or the Khoisan language Khoekhoe, spoken in the Kalahari Desert. Conversations in such languages are liberally sprinkled with clicking sounds that are made with a sucking action of the tongue, much like the sounds we might make when spurring on a horse or expressing disapproval. You may have been introduced to one of these click languages spoken by Kalahari Bushmen in the 1980 film The Gods Must be Crazy. Below is an example, and if you’d like to try your hand at making Xhosa click sounds, you can find a quick lesson here.
To English ears, Xhosa speech often comes across a bit like highly-skilled beatboxing, mixing recognizeable speech with what sounds like the clacking of objects striking each other. My cocktail party friends wanted to know “How do they click and talk at the same time?” To a native speaker of Xhosa, this is a really weird question, much like asking “How do they make the consonants t or p and talk at the same time?” The late African singer Miriam Makeba, in introducing this 1979 performance of her famous “Click Song,” put it like this: “Everywhere we go, people often ask me ‘How do you make that noise?’ It used to offend me, because it isn’t a noise, it’s my language.”
If clicks do sound like exotic noises to you, it might surprise you to know that there’s nothing especially difficult about making click sounds in speech—they’re easily mastered by toddlers who still struggle making truly difficult sounds like s and z. And it might really surprise you to learn, as found in a recent study by Melissa Wright at Birmingham City University, that as an English speaker, you likely riddle your own speech with click sounds, using them much more frequently and systematically than just the occasional “tsk” of disapproval. If that’s so, why on earth do the African clicks sound so strange to English speakers, to the point of being un-language-like?