The subtle clicks of N|uu

“New high-speed, ultrasound imaging of the human tongue potentially could change how linguists describe ‘click languages’ and help speech scientists understand the physics of speech production. Here, Ouma Hannie Koerant, a speaker of N|uu, a severely endangered click language spoken by fewer than 10 people in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, prepares to have her mouth and tongue imaged as she pronounces N|uu words.” Hats off to this brave woman and her scientific collaborators in a bittersweet act of last-gasp culture-keeping. Incidentally, the | in N|uu is a dental click (written as c in major South African languages like Zulu and Xhosa; the sound is “comparable to a sucking of teeth”). Those so inclined can also practice their alveolar clicks (q or !), “comperable to a bottle top ‘pop'”, and their laterals (x or ǁ), “comparable to a click one may do for a walking horse”. There are also lip-smacking bilabial clicks (ʘ), and flat-tongued palatals (ǂ). I did my best to learn basic Xhosa click pronunciation a few years ago when I was reading Zakes Mda’s fine novel The Heart of Redness, to make sense of names like Qolorha, Ximiya, and Nongqawuse. Less esoterically, most of us are familiar with the name and San-language voice of N!xau, the late star of the film The Gods Must Be Crazy and its four (!) sequels.


photo by Johanna Brugman and Bonny Sands, from “Classifying ‘Clicks’ In African Languages To Clear Up 100-year-old Mystery,” ScienceDaily, 18 July 2009 :: additional click info from Wikipedia

Originally published at

Add Your Comments