Dear Language Nerd,
I’ve heard that in some languages ! stands for a clicking sound. Is that true? And are click languages related to whistling languages?
FIRST, AN APOLOGY: My first few posts had jokes about adoring etymonline. When I found out I could get to the OED I switched to jokes about adoring that and spurning etymonline, because moderate, reasonable reactions to dictionaries are generally not very funny. However, these jokes were at the expense of someone who cares deeply about language. Etymonline is a great website and a labor of love, given freely to all with an interest in etymology. Douglas Harper, I’m sorry.
They are in fact completely different! We’ll talk about click languages first, then whistled speech, because that is the order of less to more awesome, though you may find that hard to believe once you see how awesome click languages are.
There is much argument about the various clicks, on such topics as how many there are, how they should be classified, how they should be written, and if two clicks are really different or only variants of each other, so just know that everything I say here may change as more languages are documented more thoroughly. There are approximately one million jillion ways to write these guys, and to show smaller aspects of how they’re spoken (if they are nasal, for example, or how they are released), but I’m not prepared to spend the rest of the day discussing the differences between ŋɡ͡ǂ and k͡ǂʼqʼ, so we’re going to simplify. The International Phonetic Alphabet has symbols for five basic click sounds, but some high-population languages use x, q, and c instead, so we will call these the Big Eight and we will hit them in LIST FORM:
! or q: This is the click sound that people think of when they think of click sounds, if you follow me. Put the tip of your tongue against your gums behind your front teeth and snap downwards. It’s kind of a low cork-popping sound.
or c: This sound is the easiest, I think. Find some pesky children, and wait for them to break your valuables and try to get away with it. You will naturally shame them by shaking your head and going tsk tsk tsk, which is exactly the sound we are looking for.
\ or x: Every book and article I’ve seen tells me that this click is the sound used to make a horse go. Maybe this helps you, but I am a city slicker, so as far as I know the sound for making a horse go is “YO HORSE, MOVE IT OR LOSE IT.” Fortunately, this extremely handsome guy has made a video of clicks as used in Xhosa, which I am going to watch at least a dozen more times for, um, practice. (He also does q and c.) You do it by sucking in with the flat part of your tongue against your side teeth.
≠: This one is a lot like , but with the tongue farther back in the mouth. Here’s another handy video, this one by a duo teaching Khoekhoe (they use # for this click).
ʘ: Okay, blow somebody a kiss. Make sure it’s got that loud “smack” sound. Now do the same thing, but hold your lips flat instead of puckering up. Bam, bilabial click.
Not all click languages use all five of these, by the way. In fact, I don’t think any of them do. Specifics on click varieties and what languages use what clicks in this book.
These clicks are basic building blocks within their languages, like any other consonant, so the alphabet might be “A, B, C, D, !, , E, F…”. In fact, the main difference between a ! and a p or a b is that the consonants we’re used to are made by moving air out of the mouth, and a click is made by bringing air in. If all this seems obvious, well, let’s contrast it with whistle languages.
The whistles in whistle languages are not like consonants. No language that I’ve found has a whistle as a basic unit. Instead, whistle speech is more like a style, or a code. And I am not talking about things like the Alpine Secret Distress Whistle Codes, because as cool (and handy) as those are, they are not a language. They are about two dozen important phrases (“Check it out, I found some snow”) with a special whistle for each. No, what I am talking about is changing a language into a whistled form, such that two people can start having a conversation miles apart and switch to regular speech when they make it into range. Yes, it is a thing. Yes, it is awesome. Srsly. Check it out.
That language is Turkish, just in pure whistle form. The same thing goes on with Spanish, Hmong, Yoruba, and many many more, mostly in either mountainous or jungly areas, where a nice sharp whistle will go a long way. According to this paper, a shouted sentence starts to be hard to understand at about 200 meters; whistles are still understood at 2,000.
There are two basic ways to go about building a whistled language. The first is to start with tones, like in Yoruba, which has high, medium, and low tones that are so very musical that this website suggests thinking of them as re, mi, and do. The other way is to emphasize the pitch of your vowels, so that “eeee” is very high and “ahhh” or “ohhh” are very low. Either way, you build from there and mark your consonants subtly, by shaping the sound of the vowel-whistle. Most of the languages that can be whistled have a low consonant-to-vowel ratio. English, with its giant consonant clusters, is not a strong candidate for whistling: how would you shove indicators of all the consonants in words like “strengths” or “cramp” onto one little vowel?
Now all this leads naturally to one more question: are there any languages that have both clicks and a whistled variety? And if so, how do you indicate the clicks when you’re whistling? (Fine, two questions, but they’re interrelated.) The answer, so far, is: I have no idea. I have been looking for days, and haven’t found an exhaustive enough list of either click languages or whistled languages to get a match, or to be sure there isn’t one.This is going to take better resources than I currently have access to — time to don my ski mask and sneak into a university library. FUTURE UPDATES CONTINGENT UPON SUCCESS AND/OR DRAMA. If anyone has any leads on this, please e-mail me!
Well, now you know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your lips together and be sure to clearly articulate your vowels.
The Language Nerd
Got a language question? Ask the Language Nerd! firstname.lastname@example.org
Or: Twitter @AskTheLeague / facebook.com/asktheleagueofnerds
SO MANY REFERENCES TODAY, SO VERY MANY
Anthropology and the Bushman, by Alan Barnard
“Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages,” by Anne Rialland
“Typology and acoustic strategies of whistled languages,” by Julien Meyer
“Classifying ‘clicks’” article from the National Science Foundation
Yoruba language learning from the University of Georgia
Transcription examples taken from Wiki’s article on click consonants
Alpine Distress Signal also from Wiki, which notes that distress can be signaled not only by whistling, but also by yodeling.