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Speech May Have Begun with Clicks Instead of Words

September 14, 2014
A San of the Kalahari: a Khoi-San speaker

A San (f.k.a. “Bushman”) of the Kalahari

Southern Africa’s Khoi-San languages use clicks alongside more familiar consonants and verbs. Some have more than a hundred tongue-made ticks, clops, troks, and other sorts of clicks, giving them around 150 sounds. That’s more than any other language. (Compare the paltry 44 sounds available in English.) And that’s interesting. Languages collect sounds over time — if they don’t move around and run into lots of foreign-speakers who pressure them to simplify. So 150 sounds suggests an extremely old language. Plus, the Khoi-San languages have a very wide range of structures and grammars. That suggests they’ve had no common ancestor for a long time — that they go way back.

Based on those features, linguists calculate that the Khoi-San languages go back about 80,000 years. (Our Indo-European language family, by contrast, dates back about 6,000 years.) If so, people spoke Khoi-San languages when Homo sapiens first spread out from Africa. It’s possible everyone spoke a Khoi-San language then, and the world’s other languages descend from them. (Interestingly, some Khoi-San speakers still hunt and gather, as all humans once did.)

If Khoi-San languages predate all others, it’s possible clicks go back to the beginning too. In fact, linguists have suggested Khoi-San’s clicks came before consonants and vowels — which would mean speech began with clicks instead of words.

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Photo: A San Bushman, by Ian Beatty, from Wikimedia Commons

© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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