Click Consonants

Have you ever disapproved of something and made a *tsk tsk* clicking sound? This is an example of a speech sound called a click. In some African languages, clicks function as consonants, so they are known as click consonants. Although they are not used as consonants in English, it is still helpful to learn about the different types of clicks, as this will deepen your understanding of speech sounds used in foreign languages.

Click Consonants Click Consonants

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Table of contents

    Click Consonants Introduction

    Click consonants (also known as clicks) are a part of Phonetics, which is the study of speech sounds in a language. Even if you are not aware of what clicks are, most of us - regardless of language - use click sounds on a regular basis. However, they are only used as consonants in some African languages, such as Khoisan, Niger-Congo, and Bantu languages.

    Click Consonants Definition

    Check out the definition of click consonants below:

    Click consonants are non-pulmonic speech sounds. This means that when they are pronounced, the airflow does not come from the lungs.

    The opposite of non-pulmonic sounds is pulmonic sounds, which are pronounced by pushing air out of the lungs and through the mouth or nose. All consonants in the English language are considered pulmonic.

    Other types of non-pulmonic consonants include voiced implosives and ejectives. An example of a voiced implosive is the voiced bilabial implosive [ɓ]. Bilabial refers to sounds produced using both lips. An example of an ejective is the velar ejective [kʼ]. Velar refers to sounds pronounced with the back of the tongue near the soft palate (the back of the roof of the mouth).

    Clicks Consonants Origins

    Although their specific origins are unclear, click consonants are believed to have originated from either:

    1. Non-click consonant clusters, which are groups of consonants that do not contain a vowel. For example, the /sk/ in "sky" or the /bl/ in "blue."

    OR

    2. Doubly articulated consonants, which are consonants that have two places of articulation at the same time. Place of articulation refers to which speech organs (e.g., teeth, lips, tongue) are used to produce a sound. For example, the [k͡p] consonant (known as a voiceless labial-velar plosive) consists of a [k] and a [p] pronounced at the same time. This consonant is not used in English but is found in some languages in West and Central Africa (including Igbo, Logba, and Yoruba).

    Click Consonants Languages

    Click consonants are specific to the continent of Africa*, though not all African languages are click languages.

    Click Consonants, Map of Africa, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The continent of Africa is home to around a third of the world's languages.

    Clicks are a prominent and original feature of the Khoisan languages, a group of languages spoken in Southern Africa. There are three main Khoisan language families: Northern (Kx’a), Central (Khoe-Kwadi), and Southern (Tuu). Clicks make up a large part of the vocabulary and are the initial sounds in roughly 70% of the words.

    Clicks have been borrowed from the Khoisan languages by the Niger-Congo language family in sub-Saharan Africa, which include some of the Bantu languages (such as Zulu, Xhosa, Gciriku, and Yei). When sounds are borrowed from other languages, they become incorporated into the new languages and are then used to create new words. Clicks are also used in three languages in East Africa; Sandawe, Hazda, and Dahalo.

    *The only exception was Damin, a now-extinct language that was used by the aboriginal Lardil people of Northern Australia.

    Click Consonants Types

    There are five different types of clicks, each with a different phonetic symbol:

    1. Bilabial click /ʘ/

    2. Dental click /ǀ/

    3. Post-alveolar click /ǃ/

    4. Palatal click /ǂ/

    5. Lateral click /ǁ/

    Let's look at each of these in more detail.

    Click Consonants Manner of Articulation

    Before looking into the characteristics of each of these sounds, let's look at the science behind how each sound is made. It is important to be aware of the manner of articulation (as well as the place of articulation), as this will help you to understand how click sounds are produced.

    Manner of articulation in phonetics refers to how airflow is affected when it flows through the vocal tract.

    Click consonants are lingual ingressive sounds, meaning that when they are pronounced, the air stream flows inwards through the mouth or nose. When pronouncing a click, the back of the tongue is pressed up against the roof of the mouth to create a suction. When the tongue or lips are released, this creates a flow of air that rushes inwards.

    Click Consonants Characteristics

    Click consonants have very distinct sounds. The main characteristic of a click is a short, sharp popping or smacking sound. These differ slightly depending on the type of click, as each click has a different place of articulation.

    Place of articulation refers to which speech organs (e.g., teeth, lips, tongue) are used to produce a sound. Knowing about the place of articulation will help you understand where in the mouth sounds are made and how to pronounce different sounds.

    For example:

    • Bilabial click = Lip-smacking sound; almost like blowing a kiss, but without pursing the lips. When making this sound, both lips make contact and then quickly release.
    • Dental click = Similar to the *tsk tsk* sound we make when disapproving of something. When making this sound, the tip of the tongue is just behind the teeth.
    • Post-alveolar click = Similar to the *clip-clop* sound we often use to imitate the sound of a horse’s hooves. When making this sound, the tongue touches the back of the alveolar ridge (the bony part at the top of the mouth, just behind the teeth) and releases to the bottom of the mouth.
    • Palatal click = Sounds like fingers snapping. This sound is produced by sucking the tongue up against the hard palate (the bony part of the roof of the mouth) and then quickly snapping it back down.
    • Lateral click = Sounds like the *tchick tchick* sound used when we call animals over (e.g., dogs, horses). When making this sound, the tip of the tongue is against the roof of the mouth.

    Click Consonants, Image of horse and dog, StudySmarterFig. 2 - In English, click sounds can be used to imitate a horse's gallop or call over animals.

    Click Consonants Use

    When clicks are used as consonants within a language, they function the same as any normal consonants in words. Both consonants and vowels are speech sounds used to create words in any language.

    English speakers often use click sounds in daily life, but in the English language, they are only used paralinguistically. This means that, although they are sounds and they carry meaning, they do not contribute to creating words. For example, clicks in English can be used to signal disapproval, imitate animal sounds, or call over animals.

    Click Consonants Example

    You may be wondering, what do click consonants look like within words? Here are a few examples, with the click consonants in bold:

    LanguageWordType of click usedMeaning
    SandaweǀgweéDental clickEye
    ǃXóōʘàaBilabial clickChild
    Hadzaǁná’eLateral clickTo hear
    KhoeǂéePalatal clickEar
    JuǃhõáPost-alveolarMan

    Key:

    Bilabial click /ʘ/

    Dental click /ǀ/

    Post-alveolar click /ǃ/

    Palatal click /ǂ/

    Lateral click /ǁ/

    Click Consonants - Key takeaways

    • Click consonants are non-pulmonic speech sounds. When they are pronounced, the airflow does not come from the lungs.
    • Click consonants are lingual ingressive sounds. When they are pronounced, the air stream flows inwards through the mouth or nose.
    • Click consonants are believed to have developed from either non-click consonant clusters or doubly articulated consonants.
    • Clicks are a prominent and original feature of all three Khoisan language families. They have been borrowed by the Niger-Congo language family (including some Bantu languages) and are also used by three East African languages (Sandawe, Hazda, and Dahalo).
    • There are five different types of clicks; bilabial, dental, post-alveolar, palatal, and lateral.
    • When clicks are used as consonants, they function as any normal consonant would. In English, click sounds are paralinguistic, so do not contribute to making words.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Click Consonants

    What are clicks in phonetics?

    Clicks are speech sounds.

    What are click consonants?

    Click consonants are non-pulmonic speech sounds. When they are pronounced, the airflow does not come from the lungs. Instead, the air stream flows inwards through the mouth or nose.

    What are the origins of click consonants?

    Click consonants are believed to have originated from either non-click consonant clusters or doubly articulated consonants.

    How are click consonants produced?

    When pronouncing a click, the back of the tongue is pressed up against the roof of the mouth to create a suction. When the tongue or lips are released, this creates a flow of air that rushes inwards.

    How many languages have clicks?

    Clicks that function as consonants are specific to African languages. They are found in only around 24-38 living languages. On the other hand, click sounds used paralinguistically are found all over the world.

    How many click consonants are there?

    There are five click consonants:

    1. Bilabial

    2. Dental

    3. Post-alveolar

    4. Palatal

    5. Lateral

    Which African language uses clicks?

    Clicks are used in all three Khoisan language families, in the Niger-Congo language family (including some Bantu languages) and in three East African languages (Sandawe, Hazda and Dahalo).

    Why are click consonants so rare?

    The main reason why click consonants are so rare is because they are complex sounds, and are only found in African languages.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Click consonants are _________ speech sounds.

    True or false?When pronouncing non-pulmonic consonants, the airflow does not come from the lungs.

    True or false?All African languages are click languages.

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