How do the clicks in the Khoisan languages work?

Understanding the Clicks in Khoisan Languages

The Khoisan languages, spoken in southern Africa, are an enigma in the linguistic world due to their unique clicks. Clicks are rare among languages globally, with the Khoisan languages being the most well-known example. In this blog post, we will delve into the world of Khoisan languages, exploring what clicks are, how they function, and the various types of clicks present in Khoisan languages.

What are Clicks and Their Role in Khoisan Languages

Clicks are non-pulmonic speech sounds produced by closing the mouth and releasing a burst of air from the oral cavity. They are considered ‘non-pulmonic’ because they do not rely on the lungs’ airflow. Instead, the air for a click is produced in the mouth while forming a vacuum with the tongue. Clicks are used contrastively in Khoisan languages, meaning they are phonemic and used to distinguish different words.

While the Khoisan languages are not the only ones that employ clicks, they do boast the highest number of distinct click types. Clicks in Khoisan languages appear in various environments, functioning as in-jokes, interjections, or even as phonemic segments representing different meanings based on their position within the word.

Types of Clicks in Khoisan Languages

There are five primary click types, each defined by the mechanism and location of the closure within the oral cavity. These are the dental click, lateral click, alveolar click, palatal click, and retroflex click. Furthermore, each click type has variations, such as voiced, voiceless, aspirated, and ejective.

1. Dental Clicks: Dental clicks (/ǀ/) are produced by placing the tip of the tongue behind the upper front teeth and then releasing it from the teeth. They are usually represented by the symbol ‘|’.

2. Lateral Clicks: Lateral clicks (/ǁ/) are made by positioning the side of the tongue against the upper molars, creating a closure on both sides of the mouth. The sides of the tongue are then lowered sequentially, resulting in a distinctive sound. They are represented by the symbol ‘||’.

3. Alveolar Clicks: Alveolar clicks (/ǃ/) are generated by placing the tongue against the alveolar ridge, found just behind the upper teeth. They are usually denoted by the symbol ‘!’.

4. Palatal Clicks: Palatal clicks (/ǂ/) are formed with the mid-front part of the tongue and the hard palate (the middle part of the roof of the mouth), represented by the symbol ‘ǂ’.

5. Retroflex Clicks: Retroflex clicks (/ǃ˞/) occur when the front of the tongue curls back to make contact with the hard palate. These are the least common and are denoted by ‘ǃ˞’.

Learning and Using Clicks in Khoisan Languages

The Khoisan languages’ distinctive clicks attract linguists from all over the world. However, learning these clicks can prove challenging for non-native speakers. Incorporating click sounds into speech requires practice and coordination between the mouth and tongue. For native speakers, clicks are an essential part of their language and culture, giving Khoisan languages an unparalleled uniqueness in the world of linguistics.

In conclusion, the Khoisan languages’ clicks are a remarkable linguistic feature that truly sets them apart from other languages. By understanding the different types of clicks and their role within the Khoisan languages, we can appreciate the complexity and beauty ofthese languages.

Preservation and Revitalization of Khoisan Languages

Khoisan languages have seen a decline in the number of speakers over the past few centuries due to various factors, including colonization, urbanization, and cultural assimilation. This decline has resulted in some Khoisan languages becoming endangered, with others facing extinction. As a result, there is growing concern among linguists and cultural preservationists about the need to document, preserve, and revitalize these unique languages.

Efforts to preserve and revitalize Khoisan languages include recording oral histories, documenting linguistic data, developing teaching materials, and promoting the use of these languages in formal and informal contexts. Some schools in southern Africa are now including Khoisan languages in their curricula to promote their use among younger generations and foster a sense of pride in their linguistic and cultural heritage.


Khoisan languages and their fascinating click sounds are a testament to the immense diversity and richness of human language. Understanding their mechanics, distinct types, and cultural significance not only broadens our understanding of the linguistic landscape but also underscores the importance of preserving these unique languages for future generations. As we continue to explore and appreciate the intricacies of Khoisan languages, we are reminded that language is not just a means of communication; it is also a reflection of the history, culture, and identity of the people who speak it.