Click letter

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Various letters have been used to write the click consonants of southern Africa. The precursors of the current IPA letters were created by J. G. Krönlein,[1] popularized by Karl Richard Lepsius,[2][3] and continued by Wilhelm Bleek.[4]

Also influential were Clement Doke[5][6] and Douglas Beach,[7] who used a different system that partially paralleled the IPA from 1921 to 1989.

Individual languages have had various orthographies, usually based on either the Lepsius alphabet or on the Latin alphabet. They may change over time or between countries. Latin letters, such as c q x ç, have case forms; the pipe letters, ǀ ǃ ǁ ǂ, do not.

Multiple systems[edit]

The clicks of Xhosa, in the Lepsius alphabet of 1854. The ⟨ṅ⟩ is equivalent to ⟨ŋ⟩. The pipe with the acute accent was soon replaced with ⟨ǂ⟩.
The clicks of Khoekhoe, in the Beach alphabet of 1938. The series are (left to right) dental, alveolar, lateral and palatal.

By the early 19th century, the otherwise unneeded letters c q x were used as the basis for writing clicks in Zulu by British and German missions.[8] However, for general linguistics this was confusing, as each of these letters had other uses. There were various ad hoc attempts to create letters—often iconic symbols—for click consonants, with the most successful being that of Krönlein popularized by Lepsius. Doke later created a different system, based graphically on the IPA letters of 1921 and theoretically on an empirically informed conception of the nature of click consonants.

The Nama name ǁhapopen ǀoas (ʖhapopen ʇʔoas), from Beach's phonology.
The Khoekhoe word ǂgaeǂui (⨎ae-⨎ʔui), illustrating Beach's distinctive form of the letter ǂ.
The Khoekhoe word ǁnau, illustrating the curled tail Beach used to indicate nasal clicks. These modified letters never made it into the IPA.
The 1925 Doke orthography for ʗhũ̬ː (!Xũ). Note that "alveolar" (2nd column) corresponds to modern palatal [ǂ]. The letters in the first, third and fifth columns had earlier been used for Zulu. The voiced dental click has the letter ⟨ɣ⟩ that would later be used by the IPA for a voiced velar fricative.
Though not clear from this image, the descenders on the nasal clicks that bend to the right bear rings, while those that bend to the left are tails as in IPA ŋ and ɲ. That is, the nasal click letters are, respectively, n with a ring on the right leg, ŋ with a ring on the left leg, n with a ring on the left leg, ɲ with a ring on the right leg, and n with rings on both legs.
Letters for (tenuis) clicks
bilabial dental lateral alveolar palatal retroflex
Wuras[9] ┌┐
Boyce (1834)[10] c x q qc
Scheuder (1850)[11] ϟ ϟ͛[8] ϟ̈͛[8]
Lepsius (1854) ǀ[12] ǀǀ ǀ̣ ǀ́[13]
Tindall (1858)[14] c x q v
IPA (1921)[15] ʇ ʖ ʗ
Doke (1925) ʇ ʖ ʗ [16] ѱ
Engelbrecht (1928)[17] c x q ç
Beach (1938) ʇ ʖ ʗ
IPA (1989) ʘ[18] ǀ ǁ ǃ ǂ [19]
Linguasphere (1999)[20] p' c' l' q' t'
Lingvarium (ca. 2005) пъ цъ лъ къ чъ
typewriter substitutions @ / // ! § or =

Besides the difference in letter shape (variations on a pipe for Lepsius, modifications of Latin letters for Doke and Beach), there was a conceptual difference: Lepsius used one letter as the base for all click consonants of the same place of articulation (called the 'influx'), and added a second letter or diacritic for the manner of articulation (called the 'efflux'), treating them as two distinct sounds (the click proper and its accompaniment),[21] whereas Doke used a separate letter for each tenuis, voiced, and nasal click, treating each as a distinct consonant, and thus following the example of the Latin alphabet, where the voiced and nasal occlusives also treated as distinct consonants (p b m, t d n, c j ñ, k g ŋ).

Doke's nasal-click letters were based on the letter ⟨n⟩, continuing the pattern of the pulmonic nasal consonants ⟨m ɱ n ɲ ɳ ŋ ɴ⟩. For example, the letter for the dental nasal click is ⟨ȵ⟩; the alveolar is similar but with the curl on the left leg, the lateral has a curl on both legs, and the retroflex and palatal are ɲ, ŋ with a curl on their free leg: Doke nasal clicks.png. The voiced-click letters are more individuated, a couple were simply inverted versions of the tenuis-click letters. The tenuis–voiced pairs were ⟨ʇ ɣ⟩ (the letter ⟨ɣ⟩ had not yet been added to the IPA for the voiced velar fricative), ⟨ʗ 𝒬⟩, ⟨ѱ ⋔⟩, similarly ⟨⟩ and its inverse, and lateral ⟨ʖ⟩ paired with a double loop (an inverted ꔛ): Doke voiced click letters.png. A proposal to add Doke's letters to Unicode[22] is not yet decided finally (as of December 2017, Unicode version 10.0).

Beach wrote on Khoekhoe and so had no need for letters for the voiced clicks; he created letters for nasal clicks by adding a curl to the bottom of the tenuis-click letters: double-barred ⟨ʆ⟩ for nasal ⟨⟩, stretched ⟨ɕ⟩ for nasal ⟨ʗ⟩, turned ⟨ȶ⟩ for nasal ⟨ʇ⟩ (though with the curl on the bottom), and something like a topless ⟨ʓ⟩ for nasal ⟨ʖ⟩: Beach nasal clicks.png.

Doke and Beach both wrote aspirated clicks with an h, ⟨ʇh ʗh ʖh ⨎h⟩, and the (nasalized) glottalized clicks with a glottal stop, ⟨ʇʔ ʗʔ ʖʔ ⨎ʔ⟩.[23]

Evolution of phonetic transcription[edit]

Doke had run "admirable" experiments establishing the nature of click consonants. Nonetheless, Bleek in his highly influential work on Bushman languages rejected Doke's orthography on theoretical grounds, arguing that Doke's letters stood for two sounds each, "a combination of the implosive sound with the sound made by the expulsion of the breath" (that is, influx plus efflux), and that using Doke's orthography it was impossible to write the clicks themselves, as "we cannot call [them] either unvoiced, voiced, or nasal."[24] Bleek therefore used digraphs based on the Lepsius letters, as Lepsius himself had done for the same reason. Ironically, linguists have since taken the co-articulation to be inherent in the Lepsius (pipe) letters, since the 'influx' can never occur alone, and therefore use the simple letters for the tenuis clicks rather than for some abstract 'clickness' as Bleek had. However, since the Lepsius letters have become standard (and even when the Doke letters were official in the IPA, only the letters for the tenuis clicks had been adopted, being treated as conceptually equivalent to the Lepsius alphabet), today if linguists wish to reflect the dominant view, and to use the IPA, they must resort to diacritics that would not be used for non-click consonants.

Summarized below is the evolution of formal click transcription, from Bleek's digraphs reflecting co-articulated consonants, to ligatures intended to function as single letters, to full IPA with diacritics, along with an equivalent treatment of the tenuis, voiced, and nasal non-click occlusives [t d n] (for illustrative purposes).[25]

Evolution of
click transcription
Tenuis Voiced Nasal
Bleek, coarticulation analysis ɡǂ ŋǂ
Modified Bleek, unified analysis ǂ ᶢǂ ᵑǂ
Full IPA ǂ ǂ̬ ǂ̬̃
Illustration with non-clicks
(only t and t̬ are actually used)
    [t]         [d]         [n]    
dt nt
t ᵈt ⁿt
t t̬̃

Historical orthographies[edit]

Written languages with clicks generally use an alphabet either based on the Lepsius alphabet, with multigraphs based on the pipe letters for clicks, or on the Zulu alphabet, with multigraphs based on c q x for clicks. In the latter case, there have been several conventions for the palatal clicks. Some languages have had more than one orthography over the years. For example, Khoekhoe has had at least the following, using palatal clicks as an example:

Khoekhoe orthographies
(illustrated with palatal clicks)
Modern ǂguis ǂa ǂham ǂnu
Beach (1938)  ʃ=uis  ʃ=ʔa  ʃ=ham  ʃ=nu
Tindall (1858) vguis va vham vnu

Historical roman orthographies have been based on the following sets of letters:

Latin letters for tenuis clicks
dental alveolar lateral palatal
Xhosa (1834)[10] c q x qc[26]
Khoekhoe (1858) c q x v
Juǀʼhoansi (1987–1994) c q x ç
Naro (2001–present) c q x tc[27]

There are two principal conventions for writing the manners of articulation (the 'effluxes'), which are used with both the Lepsius and Zulu orthographies. One uses g for voicing and x for affricate clicks; the other uses d for voicing and g for affricate clicks. Both use n for nasal clicks, but these letters may come either before or after the base letter. For simplicity, these will be illustrated across various orthographies using the lateral clicks only.

Conventions for click manners (illustrated on lateral clicks)
tenuis voiced nasal glottalized aspirated affricated affricated
murmured murmured
Zulu > ca. 1850 x xg[28] xn xh
Khoekhoe modern ǁg ǁn ǁ ǁkh ǁh
1858 xg[29] xn x xkh xh
Naro > 2001 x dx nx xh xg xgʼ
Juǀʼhoansi modern ǁ ǁʼ ǁh ǁx, gǁx ǁk, gǁk ǁʼh gǁh nǁh
1975 ǁxʼ, gǁxʼ nǁʼh
1987 x dx nx xh xg, dxg xgʼ, dxgʼ xʼh dxh nxh
Hadza x nx xx xh
Sandawe x gx nx xh


  1. ^ Beach (1938), 288 ff
  2. ^ C. R. Lepsius, 1855, Das allgemeine linguistische Alphabet: Grundsätze der Übertragung fremder Schriftsysteme und bisher noch ungeschriebener Sprachen in europäische Buchstaben. Berlin: Verlag von Wilhelm Hertz
  3. ^ C. R. Lepsius, 1863, Standand Alphabet for Reducing Unwritten Languages and Foreign Graphic Systems to a Uniform Orthography in European Letters. 2nd edition, London/Berlin.
  4. ^ A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages. London, Trübner & Co. (1862: Part I; 1869: Part II)
  5. ^ Doke, Clement M. (1925). "An outline of the phonetics of the language of the ʗhũ: Bushman of the North-West Kalahari". Bantu Studies. 2: 129–166.
  6. ^ Doke, Clement M. (1969) [1926]. The phonetics of the Zulu language. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press.
  7. ^ Beach, Douglas Martyn (1938). The phonetics of the Hottentot language. London: W. Heffer & Sons.
  8. ^ a b c
    Zulu click letters of the Norwegian mission
    The Norwegian mission to the Zulu used ⟨ϟ⟩ (a z-like zig-zag) for c (perhaps related to the use of both z and c for dental affricates), a double ϟ (a ξ-like zigzag) for x (perhaps not coincidentally, Greek ξ is transcribed x), and the same letter with an umlaut for q.
  9. ^ Katechismus (Catechism of the !Kora language), undated ms. Revision of 1815 edition, which did not have a coherent transcription for clicks.
  10. ^ a b William Binnington Boyce, 1834, A grammar of the Kafir language, London
  11. ^ HPS Schreuder, 1850, Grammatik for Zulu-Sproget, Christiania
  12. ^ The Lepsius letter is a short vertical pipe, with neither ascender nor descender—that is, of the same height as the letter n. In Krönlein it has a short ascender, the height of the letter t, and moreover in Krönlein the four pipe letters are always inclined, like the letters in italic type.
  13. ^ The double-barred pipe was proposed by the Rhenish Mission Conference in 1856 and quickly replaced Lepsius's pipe with acute accent. (Brugman, 2009, Segments, Tones and Distribution in Khoekhoe Prosody. PhD dissertation, Cornell.)
  14. ^ Tindall (1858) A grammar and vocabulary of the Namaqua-Hottentot language
    Tindall's full paradigm is,
    c ch ck cg ckh cn
    q qh qk qg qkh qn
    x xh xk xg xkh xn
    v vh vk vg vkh vn
  15. ^ L'écriture phonétique internationale (2nd ed.)
  16. ^ resembling a squat down arrow, here substituted by the old Roman numeral for 50, but slightly flared, the way ⟨≺⟩ differs from simple ⟨<⟩.
  17. ^ J.A. Engelbrecht, 1928, Studies oor Korannataal. Annale van die Universiteit van Stellenbosch. Cape Town.
  18. ^ From Bleek, used by 1923 or earlier
  19. ^ The IPA has no dedicated letter for retroflex clicks. Ad-hoc and have been used in the literature, the latter perhaps only in Cole (1966).
  20. ^ Linguasphere found the Khoisanist letters to be impractical for sorting and with their database, and so substituted them with p', c', q', l', t'. These occur with the usual accompaniments, for sequences such as L'xegwi, Nc'hu, C'qwi, and Q'xung.
  21. ^ Lepsius explained his system as follows:

    Essential to the [clicks] is the peculiarity of stopping in part, and even drawing back the breath, which appears to be most easily expressed by a simple bar ı. If we connect with this our common marks for the cerebral [i.e. retroflex: the sub-dot] or the palatal [the acute], a peculiar notation is wanted only for the lateral, which is the strongest sound. We propose to express it by two bars ıı. As the gutturals [i.e. posterior articulations] evidently do not unite with the clicks into one sound, but form a compound sound, we may make them simply to follow, as with the diphthongs. (Note: Lepsius used short bars which are not available with Unicode 6.3 and are approximately represented here by a dotless ı, but in fact are bars without serifs.)
    Lepsius click letters.png

    — Lepsius (1863:80–81)
  22. ^ Michael Everson (2004-06-10). "Proposal to add phonetic click characters to the UCS" (PDF). ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2, Document N2790. Retrieved 2013-10-07.
  23. ^ Beach also wrote the affricate contour clicks with an x, ⟨ʇx ʗx ʖx ⨎x⟩.
  24. ^ D. F. Bleek, 1923, "Note on Bushman Orthography", Bantu Studies, 2:1:71–74
  25. ^ ⟩ is occasionally seen for [d] as an allophone of /t/, but otherwise the treatment of clicks is never used for other consonants.
  26. ^ reported from a few words, not used in modern publication
  27. ^ a typewriter-friendly variant of the Juǀʼhoansi convention of ç, which had initially been used for Naro as well.
  28. ^ slack voiced
  29. ^ and possible ⟨xk⟩, which is conflated with xg in the modern language