Language. Mobility. Environment.

A clique of clicks

7 million of people in South Africa speak Xhosa. Nelson Mandela himself spoke it and not many outside this community are able to pronounce correctly his complete name, or the name of the town where he grew up – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and ‘Qunu‘ respectively. Since last week I thought that nothing could be more unpronounceable that the Danish rødgrød med fløde, yet I have now  changed my opinions completely. In terms of phonetics, Xhosa is quite of a tricky one. The hardest bit is certainly the clicking sound system, traditionally considered by many a form of primordial human language – theory that has now been disproved. This particular linguistic feature has been borrowed from the Khosian languages, which use clicks quite extensively. Xhosa has three types of plain clicks, two Dental/Alveolar (central and lateral, written respectively as c and x) and Postalveolar, conveyed with the q. The word ‘Xhosa’ itself begins with the former. Although we might find it not that hard to imitate the sounds, put them into actual words and use them in a flowing conversation sounds like madness. Not to mention singing…

It’s an agglutinative language, that means that it makes uses of lots of prefixes and suffixes to convey the role each word has in a sentence. As most African languages, it is quite complex and certainly its odd phonetical features do not help the external learner. The official languages of higher education in South Africa are English and Afrikaans, yet at least nine institutions use Xhosa and the language is taught in primary and secondary school extensively throughout the country. The number of its speakers and thus its political relevance makes it particularly influential; it also appeals the curiosity of linguists from all over the world, expectedly fascinated by the weird clicks. However, no matter how surprised people might feel hearing this language, this phenomenon is closer than we think. According to Susanne Fuchs, Laura L. Koening and Ralf Winkler, German – yes, that German, one of the three official languages of the European Union – actually possesses a (weak) form of click. (click here to read the article). Close analysis have showed how in phrases like ‘Er nascht Kitschende‘ or ‘Er nascht Tischende‘ a so-called lingual ingessive airstream mechanism occurs – fancy words that simply describe, for instance, that funny sound kids make to recall a horse trotting.

Xhosa Language profile from the Students' Handbook of Linguistics, Univeristy of Edinburgh.

Xhosa Language profile from the Students’ Handbook of Linguistics, Univeristy of Edinburgh.

Sala kakuhle!

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