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Click Languages

Updated on January 16, 2010
Photo by ChanMuk
Photo by ChanMuk

Click Languages are a group of languages spoken in southern and eastern Africa, which received their name because of the characteristic click sounds that are found in all of them. An alternative name is Khoisan, composed of the Hottentot word for themselves (Khoi) and their name for the Bushmen (San). The click sounds are also found in a number of Bantu languages (Zulu, Xhosa, and Southern Sotho) of southern Africa as a result of Khoisan influence. They are not known to occur anywhere else in the world.

The Click languages have probably no more than 75,000 speakers in all, the most important being Nama Hottentot, with about 25,000, and Sandawe, estimated at about 23,000. The Click languages occur in two distinct areas: in the southern part of Africa, chiefly in South West Africa and Botswana, but also in Angola and the Orange Free State of South Africa; and farther north in eastern Africa, in Tanzania. Many of the southern languages are extinct or almost so. It is thought that speakers of the Click languages formed the basic population of most of eastern and southern Africa prior to the Iron Age Bantu expansion during the last millennium.

Linguistically the Click languages may be divided into three groups: Sandawe; Hatsa; and South African Khoisan. The first two are spoken in Tanzania. South African Khoisan may in turn be divided into quite distinct northern, central, and southern groups of languages. The Hottentot are included in the central group.

The most conspicuous linguistic feature of the language group is the click sounds, produced by an inrush of air, in contradistinction to most speech, in which sound is made on outgoing breath. A great variety of click sounds occur, as many as 20 different ones in a single language, depending on the point of oral closure and the phonetic type of release that follows.

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