July 04, 2008

Clicks not a feature of early human language

Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 37 (Volume publication date October 2008)

A Historical Appraisal of Clicks: A Linguistic and Genetic Population Perspective

Tom Güldemann­, Mark Stoneking

Clicks are often considered an exotic feature of languages, and the fact that certain African "Khoisan" groups share the use of clicks as consonants and exhibit deep genetic divergences has been argued to indicate that clicks trace back to an early common ancestral language (Knight et al. 2003). Here, we review the linguistic evidence concerning the use of click sounds in languages and the genetic evidence concerning the relationships of African click-speaking groups. The linguistic evidence suggests that genealogical inheritance and contact-induced transmission are equally relevant for the distribution of clicks in African languages. The genetic evidence indicates that there has been substantial genetic drift in some groups, obscuring their genetic relationships. Overall, the presence of clicks in human languages may in fact not trace back to the dawn of human language, but instead reflect a much later episode in the diversification of human speech.



Maju said...

Makes sense: they look like elaborate phonemes.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

It says:

"Overall, the presence of clicks in human languages may in fact not trace back to the dawn of human language"

Meaning they still don't really know...

Maju said...

Of course. We never know anything 100% for sure. It's how science works: we can always have overlooked something.

That "may" clearly means, "we have good reasons to think that..."

But sure, they can be wrong.

terryt said...

Maju. Another example of our evolution not being simple?

Maju said...

It's just language! Not biological evolution but cultural. We can really do very strange things with language, even write! Can you imagine?! ;-)

I'm not familiar with click languages but I bet they are not more difficult than those languages full of consonants with nearly no vowels. Or what about tonal languages? That's madness for me but for the Chinese is the most normal thing on earth. Etc.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...


It depends on what you mean by "more difficult". Languages with less grammar tend to be more difficult to understand the speaker, because they are not highly inflected. For instance, a lot of communication in Japanese is culturally understood and if you translate the words directly it is very vague...this has historically been a problem for nonNative speakers, this shows the uniformity of Japanese culture, to where it is not necessary to use a lot of words or complex grammar to express an idea and in Japanese (unlike English) the burden of understanding is placed on the listener!!

Japanese grammar is not more difficult than, lets say Russian (which I have experience with)...but it is easier to understand what a Russian person means because they are very blunt as compared to Japanese speakers.

I'm American, English is my native language, but I speak intermediate Mandarin and I found it far easier than when I studied Russian in college.

Every Russian sentence is like a formula. :-) Spanish was easier, but still more difficult.

Chinese grammar is very simple and if you have an ear for music...4 tones is easy. Now I won't lie and say there are not more complex dialects in Chinese (like Cantonese or MinNan) but the national language is not hard. Chinese is not inflected at all, but they speak a little more blunt than Japanese and some cultural understanding helps as well.

An example...

Mingtian wo qu shangdian

Tomorrow I go store.

Zuotian wo qu shangdian le

Yesterday, I go store [le = in past]

There are no articles, no conjugations, very very minimum tense (no future, no present, just past and that is indicated with a particle and often dropped in regular speech). LOl

That is how children speak Indo-European languages.

There are also less words in Mandarin Chinese, unlike English it is not a fusion of several languages so they don't have 10 words that mean the exact same thing.

Any foreigner learning Chinese would tell you the hardest thing is writing...still...

"most Chinese characters are combination characters, the actual number of independent characters one needs to recognize is probably little more than 1,000. And if we take into account only characters or radicals which are frequently used, it probably number only a few hundred. Each individual character is also made of less than a dozen different type of strokes, which creates a simple pattern of recognition.(There are actually more stroke types for all the letters of the alphabet than in the Chinese characters). On the other hand, the Chinese script does not have rules such as Capitalization, spacing, and some other written rules in English.

There are many other factors to consider why Chinese is not harder than English as a language and script. As stated before, there are only around 50,000 words in the entire Chinese language. The average person only use around 700-800 words in his daily life. Newspaper publishers only use around 2,000 characters, and college graduates learn around 4,000 characters in Chinese and could read almost everything modern. Compared to English, the total vocabulary is over 500,000. The average person use around 3,000 words and the average journal using 6,000. The average college student knowing over 20,000 vocabulary."

I read once that the older the language and the more homogeneous the culture that speaks it the more simple the grammar, because everyone thinks very similar so they can understand vagueness in speech. Newer languages, especially in heterogeneous groups tend to be wordy and have complex grammar. I guess this is not true of creoles though.

I found this article doing some research to argue with some racist moron who claimed that languages with less words were a sign of being primitive and he had the whole IQ argument (he was speaking about Africa) when I pointed out Chinese had less words and grammar but an on average high IQ he disappeared. Imagine that.

Maju said...

I didn't want to get into a discussion on which languages are more difficult or whatever. Just to point out some examples of original elements in speech; and tonality looked like a good example with a circunscribed geography that suggests it's a regional innovation, like clicks in parts of Africa.

Just that.

Any foreigner learning Chinese would tell you the hardest thing is writing...

I must agree with that. Not that I have ever studied Chinese with any seriousness but it's quite self-evident. But tonality, being a feature I'm not used to, looks like another difficulty to me, as I have never dealt with any other tonal language ever (and I'm not very good at music either, indeed).

Clicking also seems very dificult, of course. When you see a Bushman in TV so fluently delivering those sounds in his words, I can't but feel amazed. Of course, if you learn that in your youth, it must be a lot easier.

DocG said...

Since clicks are not found widely outside of south and east Africa, it does make sense to assume they're not all that old after all. As Maju says, they are essentially phonemes, and there are plenty of other unusual phonemes in the world. It's probably because clicks are so different from anything we're used to hearing that so much attention has been focused on them. Also because Khoisan speakers are generally considered to have been isolated for such a long time, and with possibly the most ancient lineages. But if clicks were present in the earliest languages we'd expect to find many more examples of their use, scattered in many parts of the world as survivals. But we don't.

I find it interesting that so much attention has been paid to isolated linguistic elements in this regard and so little paid to the music of Khoisan peoples, which is far more distinctive in many more ways, with complex sets of characteristics that CAN be found as survivals in many other parts of the world.

Kosmo said...

I've never heard anything about Khoisan music. How is it distinct?

DocG said...

Not the music of all Khoisan speakers, but that of certain groups, especially some of the most isolated groups, thought to possess the oldest lineages, such as the Ju/'hoansi (!Kung). They vocalize together in a very distinctive style, a type of "additive counterpoint," where each singer has his or her own part and the various parts interlock with one another both polyphonically and heterophonically (also in some cases canonically) to produce a continuous flow of interwoven sound. Another very distinctive aspect of this style is the frequent use of yodel. Ju/'hoansi singing can be almost indistinguishable from the singing of certain Pygmy groups, such as the Aka, Mbuti, Baka, BaBenzele, etc. An article of mine on this style and its historical implications, "New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate," was recently published in "Before Farming" and can be accessed via their website at http://www.waspress.co.uk/journals/beforefarming/
It's in issue 2007/2, but you'll need a subscription to read beyond the abstract.

Examples of this style, as found among both Bushmen and Pygmy groups can be found on my blog, especially posts 5 through 7 of May 2007: http://music000001.blogspot.com/2007_05_01_archive.html