mappling bookmarks
Main | Students and practitioners of applied linguistics at Christmas! »

Why don’t we all speak a click language?

Christopher J. Hall and Rachel Wicaksono

The Kalahari Desert (shown in maroon) and Kalahari Basin (orange)The very first modern humans probably came from somewhere in southern Africa around 200,000 years ago and probably spoke a click language, similar to the Khosian languages spoken today in the Kalahari Desert. 

Clicks are speech sounds that occur as consonants and, to people who speak English, they sound like the ‘tut-tut’ or (tsk-tsk) sound some English speakers use to indicate disapproval, or the ‘clip-clop’ sound that children make to suggest the noise made by a horse’s hooves.  

Khosian languages are indigenous to southern Africa and click sounds from these languages spread into the other languages that arrived later, including Xhosa and Zulu.  

Miriam Makeba in 1969Famous South African singer and civil rights activist, Miriam Makeba (b. 1932 d. 2008), can be heard here singing a Xhosa wedding song, known in English as ‘The Click Song’. The audio quality is not very good, but it’s worth listening carefully to Miriam’s introduction to the song, in which she says,  

…everywhere I go people say, ‘How do you make that noise?’ It used to offend me, because it isn’t a noise, it’s my language… the colonisers of my country call this song the ‘The Click Song’ simply because they find it rather difficult saying ‘Ongqothwane’.

About 100,000 years ago, when the first groups of humans started to move out of southern Africa, they, of course, took their language with them. We are all related to those people, so why, many centuries later, don’t we all speak a click language?

The answer to this question is that language is both biological and social. All human babies (unless something goes very wrong) are born with the ability to pick up language from their surroundings. But human babies are not like birds, bees or dolphins. Human babies are both with the ability to pick up a language (or languages) they don’t inherit this language from their parents, their brains are biologically hard-wired to pick it up. The actual language(s) (English, British Sign Language, Xhosa and so on) these babies end up using will (mostly) depend on what they hear or see when they are growing up. And because human babies don’t end up using an identical copy of their parents’ language(s), languages change.

The Kalahari DesertSo, as early humans began to move out of southern Africa, they took with them their biological ability to pick up language. As groups of humans moved further away from each other there was less contact between these different groups. Inevitably, their languages changed and became different from each other. As a result of all this change, more than 7,000 different languages are used around the world today.

7,000 different languages; that’s quite some variety! But the language map of the world is actually even more complicated than this number suggests. Firstly, there are only about 196 countries in the world, so ‘language’ DOES NOT = ‘country’. Secondly, it’s very difficult to accurately count numbers of language users, because we all have a different idea of what it means to ‘use’ a language. Thirdly, most people in the world are bi- or multilingual; they can use two or more languages. Fourthly, there are no walls between languages, so in many parts of the world people will mix bits from several languages, especially if they live in big, multicultural cities like London, or on a national border like the one between France and Germany, or if their family has moved from one country to another.

Finally, we get to the biggest complication of all; even within what we think of as a ‘language’ (English, for example) there is a HUGE amount of variety.

Why IS there so much variety? Well, we have already mentioned the connection between age and geographical location and variety, but there are many other reasons for variety within languages: gender (male/female/other), sexuality (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/other), job, hobbies, social class, ethnicity and so on. Remember that language is social (as well as biological); meaning that languages and all their possible varieties are one way of showing which groups you belong to. Do you want to sound posh? Do your friends think that some ways of talking are more ‘girly’ than others? Do you have a hobby, such as football, that involves knowledge of lots of specialist words and phrases? You express your identity through your use of English. Exactly how you do this will depend on where you are, who you are talking to and what you want them to think of you. 

Miriam Makeba during a performance in 2011Unfortunately, you are not always in control of how people judge you, based on your use of English (or other languages). Sometimes you might feel annoyed by how others treat you, based partly on how you speak, write or sign, and you are right to be annoyed. Some varieties of English are considered more ‘proper’, ‘educated’ or ‘better’ than others. People who study language know that these judgments are social, not linguistic. The fact is, we all pick up and use language creatively to meet our needs as humans. No variety of English, no language, is ‘better’, than any other. Difference and change are necessary and useful, and that’s why, despite originating from the same part of the world, we don’t all speak the same language. 


For more information about languages around the world, see Ethnologue.

This blog is adapted from Chapter 1 of Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners by Chris Hall, Patrick Smith and Rachel Wicaksono. You can download the full chapter for free from the companion website on the Learning Resources page.

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Language is a very important issue by which we can improve.

Reader Comments (46)

Great to hear and see Miriam Makeba talking about language diversity from a South African perspective. We visited and read and discussed this blog as part of an on-line class on Bilingual/ESL Methods and Materials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

October 24, 2014 | Registered CommenterPatrick H. Smith

I really enjoyed this article. I especially agreed with the quote that "language does not equal country". I think that this is an important idea to keep in mind, as each person is individual and unique, and keeping this idea in mind helps us to remember those unique qualities about each individual, and keeps us from making stereotypes based on the language that a person speaks. In addition, I think it is a powerful thought that while we may not have control over what a person thinks about us, that no one language is better than the other.

October 30, 2014 | Registered CommenterSarah Weekes

Thank you for sharing such a great information and your writing style is very nice. You can use this best essay writing service to know more about writings.

July 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterRandallt Bartel

Alina Chopra is new High Profile Escorts Girl in Mumbai, working in 3 or 5 Star hotel in Mumbai. Alina Chopra Giving Service Full Satisfaction or also providing Mumbai escort services. Please Contact me soon. Independent Escorts in Mumbai, Mumbai Escorts, Independent Mumbai Escorts, Mumbai Escorts Agency, Mumbai Escorts Services, Mumbai Escorts Girls, Mumbai Escorts Models, Escorts in Mumbai,

September 4, 2015 | Registered CommenterAlina Chopra

Thanks very much for your great contribution useful contents and information.

Independent Russian Escorts in Goa
Escorts in Goa
Goa Escorts
XXX Escorts Service
Adult Russian Escorts

October 7, 2015 | Registered CommenterGoa night

This is Hyderabad Escorts Service Full Enjoyment in India.

March 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterGitika Goenka

I like this post:-
VISIT Our chandigarh Escorts Agency In Your City Click it:-
Click and Visit:-Chandigarh Escorts
Click and Visit:-Escorts in Chandigarh
Click and Visit:-Independent Chandigarh Escorts
Click and Visit:-Independent Escorts in Chandigarh

VISIT Our Partner Link Visit it:-
Click and Visit:-Nagpur Escorts Services
Click and Visit:-Nagpur Escorts Agency
Click and Visit:-Vip Escorts in Nagpur
Click and Visit:-Escorts Services Nagpur

April 5, 2016 | Registered CommenterGitika Goenka

Our more Jodhpur links Partners

Jodhpur Escorts
Jodhpur Escorts Service
Jodhpur Escorts Model
Independent Escorts In Jodhpur
Jodhpur Escorts Agency

Our more Ahmedabad links Partners

Ahmedabad Escorts
Ahmedabad Escorts Service
Ahmedabad Escorts Model
Independent Escorts In Ahmedabad
Ahmedabad Escorts Agency

Our more Bangalore links Partners

Bangalore Escorts
Bangalore Escorts

Our more Pune links Partners

Pune Escorts

Our more Kolkata links Partners

Kolkata Escorts

Our more Juhu Colaba links Partners

Juhu Escorts
Juhu Escorts
Colaba Escorts

Our more Mumbai links Partners

Mumbai Escorts
Mumbai Escorts
Mumbai Escorts

Our more Goa links Partners

Goa Escorts
Goa Escorts

Our more Thane links Partners

Thane Escorts

Our more Nashik links Partners

Nashik Escorts

April 11, 2016 | Registered CommenterGitika Goenka

Choose the supreme or top quality indpendent Goa escorts service from my personal website. I am offering escorts service in Goa, now 5star hotel. You can capture the unique and magnificent independent escorts in Goa and to be able to meet up with your sexual specifications.

Checkout My Independent Goa Escorts Link Partner :-
Maanvi Goa Escorts
Amaya Independent Goa Escorts
Afiya Goa Escorts Service
Goa Escorts
Goa Independent Escorts
Vip Goa Escorts

June 9, 2016 | Registered CommenterGitika Goenka

After the paper is completed, our editor collaborates with the writer to proofread, edit the text and check the originality of the text.

July 22, 2016 | Registered Commenterheli liame

I like this comment!!!!!!!
VISIT Our Chennai Escorts Agency In Your City Click it:-

VISIT WEB LINK Chennai Escorts,Independent Service
VISIT WEB LINK Chennai Escorts Service,Independent Escorts in Chennai
VISIT WEB LINK Chennai Escorts, escorts service in Chennai
VISIT WEB LINK The Chennai escorts, Chennai independent escorts
VISIT WEB LINK Independent Escorts Service, Chennai Escorts

July 23, 2016 | Registered CommenterGitika Goenka

VISIT Our Raipur Escorts Agency In Your City Click it:-

we welcome you to the world of Raipur escorts models.

VISIT Our LINK Raipur Escorts, escorts service in Raipur
VISIT Our LINK female escorts in Raipur, Raipur independent escorts
VISIT Our LINK Raipur independent escorts,Raipur Escorts
VISIT Our LINK Raipur Escorts Service,Independent Escorts in Raipur

September 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterGitika Goenka
Member Account Required
You must have a member account on this website in order to post comments. Log in to your account to enable posting.