A quirky article by Quentin Atkinson in Science magazine reinforces once again the news that would have surprised so many smart people not so very long ago: that humanity began in Africa. This time, it's language that gives it away — specifically, those languages with the clicks in them.
They're called Khoi-San (or Khoisan) languages, there aren't many of them and they are spoken only in the southern part of Africa in the Kalahari Desert, except for a couple of outliers up in Tanzania. Some neighboring languages, like Miriam Makeba's Xhosa, have taken on clicks, too, but they are decorations compared with those in the Khoi-San languages themselves, where the clicks can be more like skin. In the Nama language in Namibia, "hara" means "swallow," but with one of many clicks before it — written as "!hara" — the meaning is "check out," while with a different click before it — "|hara" — it means "dangle," and with yet another kind of click before it — "ǂhara" — it means "repulse"!
What makes the clicks teach us where humanity began is, oddly, how very many of them there can be in these languages. An example is another member of the family, known in older books as "Kung." That is a game Westerner's attempt at the word !Xoõ, which, when pronounced by a native speaker, sounds kind of like someone trying to produce a cross between a hiccup and a sneeze in a French accent. And that's just the name of the language!
!Xoõ has more than 100 click sounds produced all over the lips, mouth and throat. In fact, between the 40-plus other consonants and some vowels along with that, this language has about 150 different sounds — whereas English has only 44.
When a language has that many sounds, one thing you know is that it's been where it is for a long, long time. When a language just sits and stews in mouth after mouth over multiple millennia, sounds proliferate like kudzu. One thing leads to another as the language morphs along like the glob in a lava lamp: At first a word like "foot" was pronounced "fote," and after a while people drifted into pronouncing it to rhyme with "root," and then even later the vowel floated into the one we use now, rhyming with "put," which didn't even exist in Old English.
That was just one new vowel, but imagine sounds bubbling into existence like that all the time over tens of thousands of years, and you can imagine that some of them might even be clicks. That's what has happened in the Kalahari, where the Khoi-San languages have probably been spoken for, at the very least, 80,000 years.
In contrast, English has not just been sitting around like that. Anything but: Germanic invaders transported it to Britain just 1,700 years ago. And when languages get taken places, they tend to get learned by people already there speaking other languages — upon which, remember how most of us end up abusing French and Spanish while trying to learn it in high school or afterward?
That is, a language taken places gets beaten up by adults who aren't learning it right. It's what happened to English when it was picked up by Welshmen and later Normans in England, and it's what has happened to most of the world's 6,000 languages as the people speaking them moved into new places.
And part of beating up a language is leaving out some of its sounds. The French often replace our "th" with a "z." Confronted with the way they pronounce the "u" in a word like "lune" — shape your mouth for "oo" and then say "ee" — we often just use the "oo" sound that's familiar to us. Imagine so many people doing this to a language that kids grow up hearing it that way and reproduce it: This is the story of English, Mandarin, Arabic, Persian, Indonesian and countless other languages. A language on the go sheds sounds along the way. Some in the South Seas have only a dozen or so.
But those Khoi-San languages haven't moved much. It means that not many people have ever had a reason to learn them as adults, and so they've gotten to keep most of their baggage instead of shedding it. The result: hundreds of clicks, while English speakers just get along with b's and k's and l's.
And if these languages have more sounds than any in the world, then it's a good guess that they are what the other ones in the world branched off of. This dovetails beautifully with the genetic evidence suggesting the same thing: If DNA points to Africa as the cradle of humanity, then we would expect some of the languages there to have the most sounds on earth — and they do.
What this means is that, properly speaking, the question is not "Why do those languages have clicks?" but "Why don't other languages have them?" It may be that the first language was dripping with clicks, like the one the guy in The Gods Must Be Crazy spoke. It's languages like English that are, by comparison, sonic wastelands.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.