Saturday, January 28, 2017

Double Clicking But Not With A Mouse

When I was an undergraduate, it was standard fare for students to watch the classic anthropology film called The Hunters. Made in 1957, it was still a revelation when I saw it the first time in 1975. 


The Hunters is a documentary of the Ju/'hoansi people of Namibia. You might know them as !Kung or Bushmen but that's certainly not what they call themselves. 

The focus of the film is a many day hunt of a giraffe by four men. The viewer might be struck by their tireless pursuit of the failing giraffe, or the savanna landscape, or maybe what the hunters are wearing and also using as weapons. But what struck me most back then, and the many times I've watched the film since, is the language.

Sounds that we might group together "clicks" pepper Ju/'hoansi language (called Taa or !Xoon) where the ! signals a particular click that allides onto the word) making it a symphony of sound, and rendering any Romance language flat and boring in comparison. 

Also, a listener is struck dumb on how a person could actually do those sounds, do them quickly and repeatedly. An English speaker attempting to imitate Taa usually ends up striking the tongue off the roof of the mouth and sputtering tsk tsk tsk, as if indicating someone has done something wrong. So not even close.
 It seems that Taa language "click" language is actually the most complex language in the world. English has about 45 distinct sounds while the addition of clicks gives Taa 208 sounds.


The home base of the treasure trove of the ingenuity of human language is the Kalahari Desert of Namibia, Southern Africa. Many Ju/'hoansi are still full time or part time hunters and gatherers while some have settled on government land. And there are only a few thousand people left how utter these sounds as they talk to each other and go about their day.

Taa is surely one of the most beautiful human mouth sounds on earth, along with with babies laughing, and whispered words of love, and what a shame that it is disappearing from the human linguistic playbook. 




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