Click consonant

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Clicks are speech sounds that occur as consonants in many languages of southern Africa, and in three languages of East Africa. Examples of these sounds familiar to English speakers are the tsk! tsk! (American spelling) or tut-tut (British spelling) used to express disapproval or pity, the tchick! used to spur on a horse, and the clip-clop! sound children make with their tongue to imitate a horse trotting.

Technically, clicks are obstruents articulated with two closures (points of contact) in the mouth, one forward and one at the back. The enclosed pocket of air is rarefied by a sucking action of the tongue (in technical terminology, clicks have a lingual ingressive airstream mechanism). The forward closure is then released, producing what may be the loudest consonants in the language, although in some languages such as Hadza and Sandawe, clicks can be more subtle and may even be mistaken for ejectives.

What clicks sound like[edit]

IPA chart non-pulmonic consonants
This table contains phonetic symbols, which may not display correctly in some browsers. [Help]

IPA help • IPA key • Loudspeaker.svg audio help • chart • view

Click consonants occur at five principal places of articulation. IPA represents a click by placing the assigned symbol for the place of click articulation adjacent to a symbol for a non-click sound at the rear place of articulation. The IPA symbols are used in writing most Khoisan languages, but Bantu languages such as Zulu typically use Latin c, x and q for dental, lateral, and alveolar clicks respectively.

  • The easiest clicks for English speakers are the dental clicks written with a single pipe, ǀ. They are all sharp (high-pitched) squeaky sounds made by sucking on the front teeth. A simple dental click is used in English to express pity or to shame someone, and sometimes to call an animal, and is written tsk! in American English and tut! in British English.
  • Next most familiar to English speakers are the lateral clicks written with a double pipe, ǁ. They are also squeaky sounds, though less sharp than ǀ, made by sucking on the molars on either side (or both sides) of the mouth. A simple lateral click is made in English to get a horse moving, and is conventionally written tchick!
  • Then there are the labial clicks, written with a bull's eye, ʘ. These are lip-smacking sounds, but without the pursing of the lips found in a kiss.

The above clicks sound like affricates, in that they involve a lot of friction. The other two families are more abrupt sounds that do not have this friction.

  • With the alveolar clicks, written with an exclamation mark, ǃ, the tip of the tongue is pulled down abruptly and forcefully from the roof of the mouth, sometimes using a lot of jaw motion, and making a hollow pop! like a cork being pulled from an empty bottle. These sounds can be quite loud.
  • Finally, the palatal clicks, ǂ, are made with a flat tongue, and are sharper popping sounds than the ǃ clicks, like sharply snapped fingers.

Languages with clicks[edit]

Clicks occur in all three Khoisan language families of southern Africa, where they may be the most numerous consonants. To a lesser extent they occur in three neighbouring groups of Bantu languages—which borrowed them, directly or indirectly, from Khoisan. In the southeast, in eastern South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and southern Mozambique, they were adopted from a Tuu language or languages by the languages of the Nguni cluster (especially Zulu, Xhosa, and Phuthi, but also to a lesser extent Swazi and Ndebele), and spread from them in a reduced fashion to the Zulu-based pidgin Fanagalo, Sesotho, Tsonga, Ronga, the Mzimba dialect of Tumbuka, and more recently to Ndau and urban varieties of Pedi, where the spread of clicks continues. The second point of transfer was near the Caprivi Strip and the Okavango River where, apparently, the Yeyi language borrowed the clicks from a West Kalihari Khoe language; a separate development lead to a smaller click inventory in the neighboring Mbukushu, Kwangali, Gciriku, Kuhane, and Fwe languages in Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia.[1] These sounds occur not only in borrowed vocabulary, but have spread to native Bantu words as well, in the case of Nguni at least partially due to a type of word taboo called hlonipha. Some creolized varieties of Afrikaans, such as Oorlams, retain clicks in Khoekhoe words.

Three languages in East Africa use clicks: Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania, and Dahalo, an endangered South Cushitic language of Kenya that has clicks in only a few dozen words. It is thought the latter may remain from an episode of language shift.

The only non-African language known to employ clicks as regular speech sounds is Damin, a ritual code used by speakers of Lardil in Australia. One of the clicks in Damin is actually an egressive click, using the tongue to compress the air in the mouth for an outward (egressive) "spurt".

For the most part, the Southern African Khoisan languages only utilize root-initial clicks.[2] Hadza, Sandawe, and several Bantu languages also allow syllable-initial clicks within roots, but in no language does a click close a syllable or end a word. Once clicks are borrowed into a language as regular speech sounds, they may spread to native words, as has happened due to hlonipa word-taboo in the Nguni languages. In Gciriku, for example, the European loanword tomate (tomato) appears as cumáte with a click c, though it begins with a t in all neighboring languages.

Scattered clicks are found in ideophones in other languages, such as Kongo /ᵑǃ/, Mijikenda /ᵑǀ/, and Hadza /ʘ̃ʷ/ (Hadza does not otherwise have labial clicks). Ideophones often utilize phonemic distinctions not found in normal vocabulary.

English and many other languages may use bare clicks in interjections, without the accompaniment of vowels, such as the dental "tsk-tsk" sound used to express disapproval, or the lateral tchick used with horses. In Ningdu Chinese (a Hakka dialect), flapped nasal clicks are used in nursery rhymes. In Persian, Greek, Maltese, Turkic and Levantine Arabic as well as southern Italian languages such as Sicilian, a bare dental click accompanied by tipping the head upwards signifies "no". Libyan Arabic apparently has three such sounds.

Clicks occasionally turn up elsewhere, as in the special registers twins sometimes develop with each other. In West Africa, clicks have been reported allophonically, and similarly in German, faint clicks have been recorded in rapid speech where the consonants /t/ and /k/ overlap between words.[3]

Occasionally other languages are said to have click sounds. This is usually a misnomer for ejective consonants, which are found across much of the world.

The airstream[edit]

The essence of a click is a lingual ingressive airstream mechanism. However, in nasal clicks the nasalization involves a separate nasal airstream, generally pulmonic egressive but occasionally pulmonic ingressive. Similarly, voiced clicks also require a simultaneous pulmonic egressive airstream to power the voiced phonation.

The front articulation may be coronal or, rarely, labial. In the languages in which it has been investigated, the front and rear articulations are interdependent, with the rear contact being uvular or pharyngeal, depending on the shape of the front of the tongue.

The rear articulation had been thought to be velar, with a few languages contrasting a uvular place of articulation. However, recent investigations of languages with very complex click systems such as Nǁng have revealed that the supposed velar–uvular contrast is actually a contrast of a simple clicks versus click–plosive airstream contours (or consonant clusters, depending on analysis). Even in languages without such a distinction, such as Xhosa, experiments have shown that when the click release is removed from a recording, the resulting sound is judged to be uvular, not velar. In related Zulu, though nasal assimilation is velar, that only indicates that the onset of the rear articulation is velar; the release is still uvular. Therefore, although not all languages have been investigated on this point, phoneticians have recently come to use the term lingual (made with the tongue) as being more accurate for this airstream mechanism than velaric (made at the velum).

Types of clicks[edit]

Like other consonants, clicks can be described using four parameters: place of articulation, manner of articulation, phonation (including glottalization), and airstream mechanism. As noted above, clicks necessarily involve at least two closures, which in some cases operate partially independently: an anterior articulation traditionally represented by the special click symbol in the IPA—and a posterior articulation traditionally described as oral or nasal, voiced or voiceless, etc. The literature also describes a contrast between velar and uvular rear articulations for some languages.

However, recent work shows that in languages that make this distinction, all clicks have a uvular, or even pharyngeal, rear closure—and the clicks explicitly described as uvular are in fact clusters/contours of a click plus a pulmonic or ejective component, in which the cluster/contour has two release bursts, the forward (click) and then the rearward (uvular) component. "Velar" clicks in these languages have only a single release burst, that of the forward click release, and the release of the rear articulation isn't separately audible (Miller 2011).

Nonetheless, in most of the literature the stated place of the click is the anterior articulation (called the release or influx), whereas the manner is ascribed to the posterior articulation (called the accompaniment or efflux). The anterior articulation defines the click type and is written with the IPA letter for the click (dental ǀ, alveolar ǃ, etc.), whereas the traditional term 'accompaniment' conflates the categories of manner (nasal, affricated), phonation (voiced, aspirated, breathy voiced, glottalized), as well as any change in the airstream with the release of the posterior articulation (pulmonic, ejective), all of which are transcribed with additional letters or diacritics, as in the nasal alveolar click, ǃŋ or ᵑǃ or—to take an extreme example—the voiced (uvular) ejective alveolar click, ᶢǃ͡qʼ.

The size of click inventories ranges from as few as three (in Sesotho) or four (in Dahalo), to dozens in the Kx'a and Tuu (Northern and Southern Khoisan) languages. Taa, the last vibrant language in the latter family, has 45 to 115 click phonemes, depending on analysis (clusters vs. contours), and over 70% of words in the dictionary of this language begin with a click.[4]

Clicks appear more stop-like (sharp/abrupt) or affricate-like (noisy) depending on their place of articulation: In southern Africa, clicks involving an apical alveolar or laminal postalveolar closure are acoustically abrupt and sharp, like stops, whereas labial, dental, and lateral clicks typically have longer and acoustically noisier releases that are superficially more like affricates. In East Africa, however, the alveolar clicks tend to be flapped, whereas the lateral clicks tend to be more sharp.


The five click releases with dedicated symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) are labial ʘ, dental ǀ, palato-alveolar or "palatal" ǂ, (post)alveolar or "retroflex" ǃ, and alveolar lateral ǁ. In most languages, the retroflex and palatal releases are "abrupt"; that is, they are sharp popping sounds with little frication (turbulent airflow). The labial, dental, and lateral releases, on the other hand, are typically "noisy": they are longer, lip- or tooth-sucking sounds with turbulent airflow, and are sometimes called affricates. (This applies to the forward articulation; both may also have either an affricate or non-affricate rear articulation as well.) The apical releases, ǃ and ǁ, are sometimes called "grave", because their pitch is dominated by low frequencies; whereas the laminal releases, ǀ and ǂ, are sometimes called "acute", because they are dominated by high frequencies. (At least in the Nǁng language and Juǀʼhoan, this is associated with a difference in the placement of the rear articulation: "grave" clicks are uvular, whereas "acute" clicks are pharyngeal.) Thus the alveolar click /ǃ/ sounds something like a cork pulled from a bottle (a low-pitch pop), at least in Xhosa; whereas the dental click /ǀ/ is like English tsk! tsk!, a high-pitched sucking on the incisors. The lateral clicks are pronounced by sucking on the molars of one or both sides. The labial click /ʘ/ is different from what many people associate with a kiss: the lips are pressed more-or-less flat together, as they are for a [p] or an [m], not rounded as they are for a [w].

The most populous languages with clicks, Zulu and Xhosa, use the letters c, q, x, by themselves and in digraphs, to write click consonants. Most Khoisan languages, on the other hand (with the notable exceptions of Naro and Sandawe), use a more iconic system based on the pipe |. (The exclamation point for the "retroflex" click was originally a pipe with a subscript dot, along the lines of ṭ, ḍ, ṇ used to transcribe the retroflex consonants of India.) There are also two main conventions for the second letter of the digraph as well: voicing may be written with g and uvular affrication with x, or voicing with d and affrication with g (a convention of Afrikaans). In two orthographies of Juǀ’hoan, for example, /ǃ̬/ is written g! or dq, and /ǃ͡χ/ !x or qg. In languages without /ǃ͡χ/, such as Zulu, /ǃ̬/ may be written gq.

Competing orthographies
labial laminal apical
dental palatal alveolar lateral
Lepsius (1855) ʘ ǀ ǂ ǃ ǁ
Doke (1926) ʇ [1] ʗ ʖ
Beach (1938) ʘ ʇ ʄ ʗ ʖ
Bantu c v ç tc
q x
  1. ^ was proposed by Clement Doke,[5] and ʄ by Beach,[6] but did not catch on, and are not supported by Unicode. (Doke resembles a down arrow and is here substituted by the old Roman numeral for 50;[7] Beach is a double-barred esh.) Three of these, ʇ, ʗ, and ʖ, were adopted into the IPA, though eventually abandoned. Doke and Beach used additional or modified letters for voiced and nasal clicks, but they did not catch on.
  2. ^ The labial and palatal clicks do not occur in written Bantu languages. However, the palatal clicks have been romanized in Naron, Juǀʼhõasi, and !Xun,[which?] where they have been written tc, ç, and qc, respectively. In the 19th century, they were sometimes written v, which might be source of the Doke letter .

There are a few less-well-attested articulations. A reported subapical retroflex release in Grootfontein !Kung[8] turns out to be alveolar with lateral release, ǃǁ; Ekoka !Kung has a fricated alveolar click with an s-like release, provisionally transcribed ǃ͡s; and Hadza and Sandawe have a "slapped" alveolar click, provisionally transcribed ǃ¡ (in turn, the lateral clicks in Hadza and Sandawe are more abrupt and less noisy than in southern Africa). However, the Khoisan languages are poorly attested, and it is quite possible that, as they become better described, more click releases will be found.

Formerly when a click consonant was transcribed, two symbols were used, one for each articulation, and connected with a tie bar. This is because a click such as [ŋ͡ǂ] was analyzed as a nasal velar rear articulation [ŋ] pronounced simultaneously with the forward ingressive release [ǂ]. The symbols may be written in either order, depending on the analysis: ŋ͡ǂ or ǂ͡ŋ. However, a tie bar was not often used in practice, and when the manner is tenuis (a simple [k]), it was often omitted as well. That is, ǂ = = ǂk = k͡ǂ = ǂ͡k. Regardless, elements that do not overlap with the release are always written according to their temporal order: Prenasalization is always written first (ŋɡ͡ǂ = ŋǂ͡ɡ = ŋǂ̬), and the non-lingual part of a contour is always written second (k͡ǂʼqʼ = ǂ͡kʼqʼ = ǂ͡qʼ).

However, it has become standard to analyze clicks as simplex segments, as research has shown that the front and rear articulations are not independent, and to use click symbols to cover the rear articulation as well, with diacritics rather than digraphs for the accompaniments. At first this tended to be ǂ, ᶢǂ, ᵑǂ for k͡ǂ, ɡ͡ǂ, ŋ͡ǂ, based on the belief that the rear articulation was velar; but as it has become clear that the rear articulation of both "velar" and "uvular" clicks is actually uvular or even pharyngeal, voicing and nasalization diacritics more in keeping with the IPA have started to appear: ǂ, ǂ̬, ǂ̃, ŋǂ̬ for ǂ, ᶢǂ, ᵑǂ, ŋᶢǂ.

Evolution of accompaniment transcription
Tenuis Aspirated Voiced Nasalized "Uvular"
k͡ǂ ~ ǂ͡k
(kǂ ~ ǂk)
k͡ǂʰ ~ ǂ͡kʰ
(kǂʰ ~ ǂkʰ)
ɡ͡ǂ ~ ǂ͡ɡ
(ɡǂ ~ ǂɡ)
ŋ͡ǂ ~ ǂ͡ŋ
(ŋǂ ~ ǂŋ)
q͡ǂ ~ ǂ͡q
(qǂ ~ ǂq)
Unified, velar ǂ ǂʰ ᶢǂ ᵑǂ qǂ
Full IPA ǂ ǂʰ ǂ̬ ǂ̃ ǂ͡q

In practical orthography, the voicing or nasalization is sometimes given the anterior place of articulation: dc for ᶢǀ and for ᵑʘ, for example.

Kirshenbaum transcription uses a very different different convention: clicks are denoted by ! (always !) added to the letter for the stop homorganic to the release, but with the manner of the accompaniment. For example, t! is a voiceless dental click, and m! is a nasal bilabial click. This convention is used in the literature on Damin, where the clicks are transcribed as m!, nh!, n!, rn!.

Places of articulation[edit]

Places of articulation are often called click types, releases, or influxes. There are seven or eight known releases, not counting slapped or egressive clicks. These are (bi)labial affricated ʘ, or "(bi)labial"; laminal denti-alveolar affricated ǀ, or "dental"; apical (post)alveolar plosive ǃ, or "alveolar"; laminal postalveolar (palato-alveolar) plosive ǂ, or "palatal"; subapical postalveolar (retroflex) ǃ˞ (in Damin); apical postalveolar with lateral release; and apical postalveolar lateral ǁ. There is an additional fricated alveolar click (a historically palatal click with an s-like release), provisionally transcribed ǃ͡s, in Ekoka !Kung. Given the poor state of documentation of Khoisan languages, it is quite possible that additional releases will turn up. No language is known to contrast more than five places of articulation, though Proto-Kx'a has been reconstructed with six.

Click release
Languages Notes
dental ǀ only Dahalo Various nasal clicks only.
1 release, variable ǀ ~ ǃ ~ ǁ Sotho, Gciriku, Mbukushu In Sotho the clicks tend to be alveolar, in Gciriku and Mbukushu dental.
2 releases, ǀ, ǂ Kwadi ǂ not found with all manners
2 releases, ǀ, ǁ ǁXegwi ǃ reacquired in loans
3 releases, ǀ, ǃ, ǁ Sandawe, Hadza, Xhosa, Zulu In Hadza and Sandawe, ǃ is often "slapped".
4 releases, ǀ, ǂ, ǃ, ǁ Korana, Khoekhoe, Yeyi, Juǀʼhoansi
4 releases, ǀ, ǃ͡s, ǃ, ǁ Ekoka !Kung ǃ͡s is a provisional transcription
5 releases, ʘ, ǀ, ǂ, ǃ, ǁ ǂHõã, Nǀu, ǀXam, Taa
5 releases, ǀ, ǂ, ǃ, ǃǁ, ǁ Grootfontein !Kung
5 releases, ʘ, ʘ↑, ǀ, ǃ, ǃ˞ Damin Aside from /ʘ↑/, all are nasal.
6 releases, ʘ, ǀ, ǂ, ǃ, , ǁ Proto-Kx'a (reconstructed)

Extra-linguistically, Coatlán Zapotec of Mexico uses a linguolabial click, [ǀ̼ʔ], as mimesis for a pig drinking water.[9]

Names found in the literature[edit]

The terms for the click releases were originally developed by Bleek in 1911. Since then there has been some conflicting variation. Here are the terms used in some of the main references.

Click release Bantu letters Also known as:
ǀ dental c dental affricative/affricated/with friction; alveolar affricated; denti-alveolar; apico-lamino-dental; denti-pharyngeal
ǂ palatal ç (tc, qc) palato-alveolar; alveolar; alveolar instantaneous; denti-alveolar implosive; palato-pharyngeal
ǃ alveolar q cerebral; (post-) alveolar implosive; palato-alveolar; palato-alveolar instantaneous; palatal; retroflex; palatal retroflex; apico-palatal; central alveo-uvular
ǁ lateral x lateral affricative/with friction; alveolar lateral affricated; post-alveolar lateral; lateral apico-alveo-palatal; lateral alveo-uvular
ʘ bilabial (pc) labial

The dental, lateral, and bilabial clicks are rarely confused. However, the palatal and alveolar clicks frequently have the opposite names in older literature, and they were not distinguished in the IPA until 1989. However, since Ladefoged & Traill (1984) clarified the places of articulation, the terms in the left column above have become standard.[10]

The back-vowel constraint[edit]

The shape of the tongue in Nama when articulating an alveolar click (blue) and a palatal click (red) [throat to the right]. The articulation of the vowel [i] is slightly forward of the red line, with its peak coinciding with the dip of the blue line.

In several languages, including Nama and Ju|’hoansi, the alveolar click types [ǃ] and [ǁ] only occur, or preferentially occur, before back vowels, whereas the dental and palatal clicks occur before any vowel. The effect is most noticeable with the high front vowel [i]. In Nama, for example, the diphthong [əi] is common but [i] is rare after alveolar clicks, whereas the opposite is true after dental and palatal clicks. This is a common effect of uvular or uvularized consonants on vowels in both click and non-click languages. In Taa, for example, the back-vowel constraint is triggered by both alveolar clicks and uvular stops, but not by palatal clicks or velar stops: sequences such as */ǃi/ and */qi/ are rare to non-existent, whereas sequences such as /ǂi/ and /ki/ are common. It is also triggered by labial clicks, though not by labial stops. Clicks subject to this constraint involve a sharp retraction of the tongue during release.

ballistic tongue retraction
& back-vowel constraint
ǃ ǁ, ʘ
no retraction, no constraint ǂ ǀ

Miller et al. (2003) used ultrasound imaging to show that the rear articulation of the alveolar clicks ([ǃ]) in Nama is substantially different from that of palatal and dental clicks. Specifically, the shape of the body of the tongue in palatal clicks is very similar to that of the vowel [i], and involves the same tongue muscles, so that sequences such as [ǂi] involved a simple and quick transition. The rear articulation of the alveolar clicks, however, is several centimeters further back, and involves a different set of muscles in the uvular region. The part of the tongue required to approach the palate for the vowel [i] is deeply retracted in [ǃ], as it lies at the bottom of the air pocket used to create the vacuum required for click airstream. This makes the transition required for [ǃi] much more complex and the timing more difficult than the shallower and more forward tongue position of the palatal clicks. Consequently, [ǃi] takes 50 ms longer to pronounce than [ǂi], the same amount of time required to pronounce [ǃəi].

Languages do not all behave alike. In Nǀuu, the simple clicks /ʘ, ǃ, ǁ/ trigger the [əi] and [æ] allophones of /i/ and /e/, whereas /ǀ, ǂ/ do not. All of the affricated contour clicks, such as /ǂ͡χ/, do as well, as do the uvular stops /q, χ/. However, the occlusive contour clicks pattern like the simple clicks, and /ǂ͡q/ does not trigger the back-vowel constraint. This is because they involve tongue-root raising rather than tongue-root retraction in the uvular-pharyngeal region. However, in Gǀwi, which is otherwise largely similar, both /ǂ͡q/ and /ǂ͡χ/ trigger the back-vowel constraint (Miller 2009).

Manners of articulation[edit]

Click manners are often called click accompaniments or effluxes, but both terms have met with objections on theoretical grounds.

There is a great variety of click manners, both simplex and complex, the latter variously analysed as consonant clusters or contours. With so few click languages, and so little study of them, it is also unclear to what extent clicks in different languages are equivalent. For example, the [ǃkˀ] of Khoekhoe, [ǃkˀ ~ ŋˀǃk] of Sandawe, and [ŋ̊ǃˀ ~ ŋǃkˀ] of Hadza may be essentially the same phone; no language distinguishes them, and the differences in transcription may have more to do with the approach of the linguist than with actual differences in the sounds. Such suspected allophones/allographs are listed on a common row in the table below.

Some Khoisan languages are typologically unusual in allowing mixed voicing in non-click consonant clusters/contours, such as dt͡sʼk͡xʼ, so it is not surprising that they would allow mixed voicing in clicks as well. This may be an effect of epiglottalized voiced consonants, because voicing is incompatible with epiglottalization.


As do other consonants, clicks vary in phonation. Oral clicks are attested with four phonations: tenuis, aspirated, voiced, and breathy voiced (murmured). Nasal clicks may also vary, with plain voiced, breathy voiced / murmured nasal, aspirated, and unaspirated voiceless clicks attested (the last only in Taa). The aspirated nasal clicks are often said to have 'delayed aspiration'; there is nasal airflow throughout the click, which may become voiced between vowels, though the aspiration itself is voiceless. A few languages also have pre-glottalized nasal clicks, which have very brief prenasalization but have not been phonetically analyzed to the extent that other types of clicks have.

All languages have nasal clicks, and all but Dahalo and Damin also have oral clicks. All languages but Damin have at least one phonation contrast as well.

Complex clicks[edit]

Clicks may be pronounced with a third place of articulation, glottal. A glottal stop is made during the hold of the click; the (necessarily voiceless) click is released, and then the glottal hold is released into the vowel. Glottalized clicks are very common, and they are generally nasalized as well. The nasalization cannot be heard during the click release, as there is no pulmonic airflow, and generally not at all when the click occurs at the beginning of an utterance, but it has the effect of nasalizing preceding vowels, to the extent that the glottalized clicks of Sandawe and Hadza are often described as prenasalized when in medial position. Two languages, Gǀwi and Yeyi, contrast plain and nasal glottalized clicks, but in languages without such a contrast, the glottalized click is nasal. Miller (2011) analyses the glottalization as phonation, and so considers these to be simple clicks.

Various languages also have prenasalized clicks, which may be analyzed as consonant sequences. Sotho, for example, allows a syllabic nasal before its three clicks, as in nnqane 'the other side' (prenasalized nasal) and seqhenqha 'hunk'.

There is ongoing discussion as to how the distinction between what were historically described as 'velar' and 'uvular' clicks is best described. The 'uvular' clicks are only found in some languages, and have an extended pronunciation that suggests that they are more complex than the simple ('velar') clicks, which are found in all. Nakagawa (1996) describes the extended clicks in Gǀwi as consonant clusters, sequences equivalent to English st or pl, whereas Miller (2011) analyses similar sounds in several languages as click–non-click contours, where a click transitions into a pulmonic or ejective articulation within a single segment, analogous to how English ch and j transition from occlusive to fricative but still behave as unitary sounds. With ejective clicks, for example, Miller finds that although the ejective release follows the click release, it is the rear closure of the click that is ejective, not an independently articulated consonant. That is, in a simple click, the release of the rear articulation is not audible, whereas in a contour click, the rear (uvular) articulation is audibly released after the front (click) articulation, resulting in a double release.

These contour clicks may be linguo-pulmonic, that is, they may transition from a click (lingual) articulation to a normal pulmonic consonant like [q] (e.g. [ǂ͡q]); or linguo-glottalic and transition from lingual to an ejective consonant like [] (e.g. [ǂ͡qʼ]): that is, a sequence of ingressive (lingual) release + egressive (pulmonic or glottalic) release. In some cases there is a shift in place of articulation as well, and instead of a uvular release, the uvular click transitions to a velar or epigottal release (depending on the description, [ǂ͡kxʼ] or [ǂᴴ]). Although homorganic [ǂ͡χʼ] does not contrast with heterorganic [ǂ͡kxʼ] in any known language, they are phonetically quite distinct (Miller 2011).

Apart from Dahalo, Damin, and many of the Bantu languages (Yeyi and Xhosa being exceptions), 'click' languages have glottalized clicks. Contour clicks are restricted to southern Africa, but are very common there: they are found in all members of the Tuu, Kx'a, and Khoe families, as well as in the Bantu language Yeyi.

Variation among languages[edit]

In a comparative study of clicks across various languages, using her own field work as well as phonetic descriptions and data by other field researchers, Miller (2011) posits 21 types of clicks that contrast in manner or airstream.[11] The homorganic and heterorganic affricated ejective clicks do not contrast in any known language, but are judged dissimilar enough to keep separate. Miller's conclusions differ from those of the primary researcher of a language; see the individual languages for details.

(all spoken primarily in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana; Khoekhoe is like Korana except it has lost ejective /ǃ͡χʼ/)

(Zulu is like Xhosa apart from not having /ᵑǃˀ/)

Each language below is illustrated with alveolar clicks, apart from Dahalo, which only has dental. Under each language are the orthography (in italics, with old forms in parentheses), the researchers' transcription (in angle brackets), or allophonic variation (in [brackets]). Some languages also have labialized or prenasalized clicks.

               Language Tuu Kx'a Khoe Sandawe Hadza Cushitic Bantu Australian
Taa Nǀu ǂHoan Juǀ’hõa[12] Korana Gǀui Dahalo Xhosa Yeyi Damin
Manner                ʘ, ǂ, ǃ, ǁ, ǀ ǂ, ǃ, ǁ, ǀ ǃ, ǁ, ǀ ǀ ǃ, ǁ, ǀ ǂ, ǃ, ǁ, ǀ ʘ, ǃ˞, ǃ, ǀ
Tenuis /ǃ/ !* ǃ [ǃ] ! (q) !g k! q q (!) q !
Voiced /ᶢǃ/ g!* ᶢǃ [ᶢǃ] g! (dq) g! gq
[ᶢǃ ~ ŋᶢǃ]
Aspirated /ǃʰ/ !h* ǃʰ [ǃʰ] !h (qh) k!h qh qh (!h) qh !h (= !x ?)
Breathy-voiced /ᶢǃʱ/ g!h* g!h (dqh)
[ᶢǃʱ ~ ᶢǃˠ]
Voiceless /ᵑ̊ǃ/ nh!*
Voiced /ᵑǃ/ *
ᵑǃ [ᵑǃ] n! (nq) !n ŋ! nq nq (n!) /ᵑǀ/ nq ŋ! rn!
(Delayed) aspiration
(prenasalized between vowels)
/ᵑ̊ǃʱ/ !hh
ᵑ̊ǃʰ [ᵑ̊ǃʱ ~ ŋᵑ̊ǃʱ] !’h (q’h) !h ŋ!h
Breathy-voiced /ᵑǃʱ/ n!hh n!h (nqh) ngq[14]
Preglottalized nasal click /ˀᵑǃ/ ’nǃ* [ʔᵑǃ] (in Ekoka)
Oral /ǃˀ/ ǃ’* k!’
Creaky-voiced oral /ᶢǃˀ/ gǃ’*
Nasal (silent initially,
prenasalized after vowels)
/ᵑ̊ǃˀ/ ǃ” ᵑ̊ǃˀ [ǃˀ ~ ŋˀǃ] !’ (q’)
(w/ nasal vowels)
! k!ʔ (ŋ̊!ʔ) q’
[ǃˀʔ ~ ŋʔǃˀ]
(!’ ~ n!’)
/ᵑǀˀ/ nkq ?[15] ŋ!ʼ
Nasal (prenasalized initially) /ᵑǃˀ/ nǃ”
Tenuis stop /ǃ͡q/ !q ǃq [ǃq] q!
Voiced (and prenasalized) /ᶢǃ͡ɢ/ g!q
[ᶰǃɢ ~ ǃɢ]
[ǃɢ][16] ([ᶰǃɢ])[17] ɢ!
Aspirated stop /ǃ͡qʰ/ !qh ǃqʰ [ǃqʰ] q!h
Breathy-voiced /ᶢǃ͡ɢʱ/ g!qh
Voiceless fricative /ǃ͡χ/ !x ǃχ [ǃq͡χ] !x (qg) !kh q!χ !x (?)
Voiced fricative (prenasalized) /ᶢǃ͡ʁ/ g!x
[ᶢǃ͡χ ~ ɴᶢǃ͡ʁ]
g!x (dqg)
Ejective stop /ǃ͡qʼ/ ǃq’ [ǃqʼ] [ǃqʼ] q!’
Voiced ejective stop /ᶢǃ͡qʼ/ gǃq’
Ejective fricative /ǃ͡χʼ/ ǃχʼ [ǃq͡χʼ] !kh’ !qʼ
Heterorganic affricate /
/ǃ͡kxʼ/ !qx’ !k (qg’)
Voiced heterorganic
affricate / epiglottalized
/ᶢǃ͡kxʼ/ g!qx’ g!k (dqg’)
Egressive[18] (voiceless "spurt"; labial only) /ʘ↑/ p’
IPA Taa Nǀu ǂHoan Juǀ’hõa Korana Gǀui Sandawe Hadza Dahalo Xhosa Yeyi Damin

Yeyi also has prenasalized /ŋᶢǃ/. The original researchers believe that [ǃʰ] and [ǃχ] are allophones.

A DoBeS (2008) study of the Western !Xoo dialect of Taa found several new manners: creaky voiced (the voiced equivalent of glottalized oral), breathy-voiced nasal, prenasalized ɡlottalized (the voiced equivalent of glottalized), and a (pre)voiced ejective. These extra voiced clicks reflect Western !Xoo morphology, where many nouns form their plural by voicing their initial consonant. DoBeS analyses most Taa clicks as clusters, leaving nine basic manners (marked with asterisks in the table). This comes close to Miller's distinction between simple and contour clicks, shaded light and medium grey in the table.

Click genesis and click loss[edit]

Clicks are often portrayed as a primordial feature of human language, a romantic reflection of the primordial lifestyle imagined of the speakers of Khoisan languages. One genetic study concluded that clicks, which occur in the languages of the genetically divergent populations Hadza and !Kung, may be an ancient element of human language.[19] However, this conclusion relies on several dubious assumptions (see Hadza language), and most linguists assume that clicks, being quite complex consonants, arose relatively late in human history. How they arose is not known, but it is generally assumed that they developed from sequences of non-click consonants, as they are found allophonically for doubly articulated consonants in West Africa (Ladefoged 1968), where /tk/ sequences overlap at word boundaries in German (Fuchs 2007), and for the sequence /mw/ in Ndau and Tonga.[20] Such developments have also been posited in historical reconstruction. For example, the Sandawe word for 'horn', /tɬana/, with a lateral affricate, may be a cognate with the root /ᵑǁaː/ found throughout the Khoe family, which has a lateral click. This and other words suggests that at least some Khoe clicks may have formed from consonant clusters when the first vowel of a word was lost; in this instance *[tɬana] > *[tɬna] > [ǁŋa] ~ [ᵑǁa].

On the other side of the equation, several non-endangered languages in vigorous use demonstrate click loss. For example, the East Kalahari languages have lost clicks from a large percentage of their vocabulary, presumably due to Bantu influence. As a rule, a click is replaced by a consonant with close to the manner of articulation of the click and the place of articulation of the forward release: alveolar click releases (the [ǃ] family) tend to mutate into a velar stop or affricate, such as [k], [ɡ], [ŋ], [k͡x]; palatal clicks ([ǂ] etc.) tend to mutate into a palatal stop such as [c], [ ɟ], [ ɲ], [cʼ], or a post-alveolar affricate [tʃ], [dʒ]; and dental clicks ([ǀ] etc.) tend to mutate into an alveolar affricate [ts].[citation needed]


Clicks are often presented as difficult sounds to articulate within words. However, children acquire them readily; a two-year-old, for example, may be able to pronounce a word with a lateral click [ǁ] with no problem, but still be unable to pronounce [s].[21] Lucy Lloyd reported that after long contact with the Khoi and San, it was difficult for her to refrain from using clicks when speaking English.[22]


  1. ^ Derek Nurse & Gérard Philippson (2003) The Bantu languages, pp 31–32
  2. ^ Exceptions occurs in words borrowed from Bantu languages, which may have click in the middle.
  3. ^ Weak Clicks in German?
  4. ^ L&M 1996, p 246
  5. ^ Clement M Doke, 1926 (1969), The phonetics of the Zulu language. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press
  6. ^ Douglas Martyn Beach, 1938, The phonetics of the Hottantot language. W. Heffer & sons. ltd.
  7. ^ , ʇ, ʗ have descenders; , ʖ have ascenders.
  8. ^ (a triple pipe) in Cole (1966) may have been the same thing. The Doke letter resembled ψ, or more precisely an inverted (descender only).
  9. ^ Rosemary Beam de Azcona, Sound Symbolism. Available at
  10. ^ A current exception is Unicode, which still calls the palatal clicks 'alveolar' and the alveolar clicks 'retroflex'.
  11. ^ Not counting the egressive "spurt" in Damin, and tree additional voiced manners in Western !Xoo, which pair up with voiceless manners.
  12. ^ Ekoka !Kung has an additional manner, ˀᵑǃ. Grootfontein and Mangetti Dune !Kung, on the other hand, have a substantially smaller inventory: ǃ, ᶢǃ, ǃʰ, ᵑǃ, ᵑ̊ǃʱ, ᵑǃˀ, ǃ͡χ, ǃ͡kxʼ.
  13. ^ Perhaps better described as slack voice. Tone-depressor effect. (Jessen & Roux, 2002. Voice quality di4erences associated with stops and clicks in Xhosa)
  14. ^ Tone-depressor effect. Sometimes a prenasalized click with a short, voiced oral occlusion, but usually without.
  15. ^ According to Nurse & Philippson (2003:616). This is typically transcribed as a prenasalized click, and is not included in Miller.
  16. ^ not prenasalized
  17. ^ perhaps borrowed from Gǀui
  18. ^ Not technically a click, but the only other attested sound with a lingual airstream mechanism.
  19. ^ Tishkoff SA, Gonder MK, Henn BM, Mortensen H, Knight A, Gignoux C, Fernandopulle N, et al., (2007). History of click-speaking populations of Africa inferred from mtDNA and Y chromosome genetic variation. Molecular Biology and Evolution 24: 2180-95.
  20. ^ Here the labial [m] may have assimilated to the velar place of the [w], as [m͡ŋw], with the release of the labial before the velar later generating a click [ᵐʘw]
  21. ^ Kirk Miller, 'Highlights of Hadza fieldwork'. LSA, San Francisco, 2009.
  22. ^ Beach (1938), p 269.

See also[edit]


  • Ladefoged, Peter. 1968. A phonetic study of West African languages: An auditory-instrumental survey. Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition. ISBN 0-521-06963-7
  • Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8. 
  • Amanda Miller, Levi Namaseb, Khalil Iskarous. 2003. Tongue Body constriction differences in click types.
  • Amanda Miller, 2011. "The Representation of Clicks". In Oostendorp et al. eds., The Blackwell Companion to Phonology.
  • Traill, Anthony & Rainer Vossen. 1997. Sound change in the Khoisan languages: new data on click loss and click replacement. J African Languages and Linguistics 18:21-56.

External links[edit]