Click Languages, Uniquely African ... and Australian!

Wednesday 14 March 2018

Click Languages, uniquely African … ‘and Australian’

What do Nelson Mandela and the Black Panther King of Wakanda have in common?

They both speak isiXhosa.

IsiXhosa is a native South African Bantu click language that adopted its clicks through trade and inter-tribal marriage with the Khoisan people.

Khoisan languages are among the oldest known language systems on Earth. And the Khoisan people can be genetically traced back to the first human civilisation.

Psycholinguist, Professor Catherine Best, of the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University, said the use of a click language in the Black Panther film arguably added an “extra dimension of authenticity” to the fictional world of Wakanda.

Professor Best has studied the perception of language for more than 40-years; specifically how English speaking infants and adults perceive the click consonants of Bantu and Khoisan languages.

She said research traced click languages back to the root Khoisan languages - five unrelated click languages concentrated in the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, with two isolated click languages found in Tanzania, Eastern Africa.

“Until recently, these click languages were thought to be uniquely African, until an anomaly shifted focus to an island off the Northern Territory in the Gulf of Carpentaria,” she said.

“An Indigenous Australian tribe known as the Lardil people of the Mornington Island have been identified as the only non-African speakers to use clicks for verbal communication in what they called the Damin language.

Damin, now extinct, was used only by the men of the tribe, and was spoken and taught during ritual ceremonies that signified male rites of passage.”

Professor Best said the click system used by the Lardil people was genetically unrelated to any of the core click languages found in Africa.

“What we know about click languages is that they are unique to southern and eastern Africa, or at least that’s what we thought,” she said.

“Click languages are based on a phonological system that uses the clicks as consonants, coordinating them with vowels to form words.

“A Khoisan language has a vocabulary of thousands of words and can have up to 63 unique clicks.

“Damin however, compared to Khoisan Languages, had a more restricted vocabulary with only 150 words in its language bank, and only a few distinct clicks.

Professor Best said the way in which Damin was used indicated that the click sequence was an extension of their native language.

“Damin is what linguists call a “ceremonial register” of the parent language, in that it follows the same grammatical rules of the parent language, in this case, Lardil,” she said.

“It’s remarkable in that it is the only click reference to be identified in language outside of the African continent, and it happens to be here in our backyard.”


**Professor Best has authored a chapter titled “Perception of non-native click consonant contrasts: Implications for theories of speech perception” in a new book called The Handbook of Click Languages, published by Brill.

The book is expected to be released in October.

Contact the MARCS Institute Media and Communications Officer, Farah Abdurahman on: +612 9772 6695, mobile: +61 427 945 382, email: