Chapter 108: Para-linguistic usages of clicks

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 108.

1. Introduction

This chapter looks at a phenomenon that does not belong to the standard canon of linguistic topics: The use of click sounds in languages that do not make use of clicks as regular phonemes. As Gil (2005c) has shown in his WALS chapter, this phenomenon is widespread in the world’s languages, at least in Africa and western and southern Eurasia. Gil calls such click usages para-linguistic, because they make use of sounds that do not occur elsewhere in the language, they express a very restricted range of meanings, and they are like interjections in that they are not integrated into the grammatical structure of the language. As a result, they are sometimes perceived as being nonlinguistic gestures, but it is important to recognize that their form and meaning differs across languages, i.e. they are learned together with other linguistic features.

Such click sounds are not normally written, but in the depiction of lively dialogue, authors may write the English alveolar click as tsk tsk, or as tut tut. In phonetic transcription, this would be [ǀ], using the technical symbols for clicks used by specialists of the Khoisan languages (which have phonemic clicks). In the following, however, we will use makeshift transcriptions of the tsk tsk type, because the precise phonetic characteristics of the click sounds of the various languages have not been investigated yet.

2. The four values

According to Gil (2005c), two most prominent para-linguistic usages of clicks are logical uses, to express affirmation or negation, and affective uses, to express negative affects (such as indignation, anger, annoyance) or positive affects (approval or appreciation). The value box shows the distribution of the APiCS languages over the four types.

No para-linguistic clicks18
Clicks can express only affective meanings34
Clicks can express only logical meanings2
Both logical and affective meanings10

We see that only 18 of our languages are reported as lacking para-linguistic clicks. It should be noted, however, that the existence of such clicks requires a very intimate knowledge of the language in its colloquial form. Thus, for 12 languages in the APiCS set, information on this feature is lacking, and it may be that further study will reveal the existence of clicks also in some of the languages of type 1.

Gil (2005c) also mentions other uses of click sounds, such as in addressing babies or for interacting with animals, but these seem to be much less widespread than affective and logical uses and are left aside for the classification. However, Michaelis & Rosalie (2013) mention that in Seychelles Creole, clicks can be used to court a woman or for the meaning ‘I got it’. And (Meyerhoff (2013) notes that “also very widespread in Vanuatu is the use of tightly pursed-lipped ingressives and dental fricatives as a means of summonsing people.”

3. Affective meanings

In the clear majority of languages where the meanings of para-linguistic clicks have been described, they express negative affects, such as “anger, anoyance or exasperation” (African American English, Green 2013), “disapproval, skepticism or frustration” (Ambon Malay, Paauw 2013), “doubt, dismissal, challenge” (Belizean Creole, Escure 2013), “disagreement, reproach, exasperation, or annoyance” (Bahamian Creole, Hackert 2013). This is thus similar to the use of tsk tsk in English and other European languages. However, in many Caribbean languages, the click sound to express negative affect is quite different from English, and it has in fact frequently been remarked upon in the literature as having a distinct character and as being prominent in the languages. While English has no specific word for the tsk tsk gesture, in many English-based Caribbean languages, the expression “suck teeth” (or sometimes “kiss teeth”) is used for a click sound expressing negative affect. Rickford & Rickford (1976) describe the use of this gesture in Creolese in some detail and claim that it is very similar in other Caribbean varieties. For example, the use of the gesture by children in the presence of adults is generally considered rude. They also note that the African Americans they interviewed were mostly familiar with the gesture, while White Americans were not.

Specific words for the “suck-teeth” gesture have been reported for several languages: stchoops or chups in Creolese (Rickford & Rickford 1976), steups or cheups in Trinidad English Creole (Mühleisen 2013), tyuri in Sranan (Winford & Plag 2013), tuipe/kuipe/tchipe/tchwipe in Haitian Creole (Fattier 2013), kiyá/ciyá in Casamancese Creole (Biagui & Quint 2013), and chocho in Santome (Hagemeijer 2013) . In English-based Caribbean varieties, it may be written cho or choo. Some examples in context follow.

Speaker 1: Gyal mi laik di wee yu waak. - Speaker 2: Schuups!
Speaker 1: Girl, I like the way you walk. - Speaker 2: Go away!
An wen ihn kom, ihn sei: "Cho! Unu nuo se ai gat trobl shitin an ai kyaan gou paati."
And when he came, he said: "Cho! You know I have such a hard time shitting that I can't go to the party."
He came, he pouted, the guy made a 'suck teeth' and went away.

In two languages of the Pacific region, a positive-affect meaning of the click has been reported. In Tok Pisin, “the tsk tsk used for disapproval in English is widely used in Tok Pisin, but to show appreciation for something impressive” (Smith & Siegel 2013). Similarly, in the mixed language Gurindji Kriol, alveolar clicks are used to express agreement or approval (Meakins 2013).

Very good!

4. Logical meanings

In twelve APiCS languages, a click can be used to express logical meanings, i.e. negative answers, or rarely positive answers, of polar questions. There are two languages where only logical meanings (value 3) can be expressed by clicks, Diu Indo-Portuguese and Palenquero. Concerning Palenquero Schwegler (2013), observes that negation-expressing clicks are found in different varieties of its lexifier Spanish, but since affect-expressing clicks are also found elsewhere in Hispanic varieties, the situation in Palenquero is surprising after all.

In the other ten languages, clicks can have both logical and affective meanings (value 4). This does not necessarily mean that a single click is ambiguous or polysemous. In Juba Arabic, for example, there are two different clicks for the two meanings: "The logical meaning ‘yes’ is realized as a palatal click, while the affective value is realized as a alveo-palatal click" (Manfredi & Petrollino 2013). In Nigerian Pidgin, "alveolar and palatal clicks are used with logical meaning (‘no’/negation) and lateral clicks are used with affective meaning (suck teeth/disgust)” (Faraclas 2013). Two further examples are given in (3).

Are you coming tomorrow? - No.
Did you see him/her? - Yes/No.

Casamancese Creole is one of the few APiCS languages where a click can be used for positive answers, but note that there are two different clicks for positive and negative answers.

In some languages, the descriptions are not totally clear and the sound may not be strictly speaking a click. For Sango, Samarin (2013) describes "a labio-dental ingressive fricative that expresses disgust, disapproval, etc.", and writes it as "ff". Similarly, Devonish & Thompson (2013) describe the Creolese sound as "an ingressive fricative passing through either the front teeth, or more often laterally along the side of the mouth and then through the teeth".Mufwene (2013) says that “Clicks are not significant in Kikongo-Kituba, although there is a practice of sucking teeth for displeasure. However, it is not clear whether sucking teeth falls in the category of clicks.” Clicks are ingressive, but they always involve two closures and a release of one closure. Thus, a study that would take the precise articulation of these special sounds into account is needed and would reveal more diversity.

5. Geographical distribution and substrates

In Gil’s (2005c) WALS chapter, it seems to be presupposed that having logical usages of clicks implies having affective usages, but we have found two languages in which only logical usages are reported to be possible. The geographical pattern of the WALS map is of course not replicated here, because the areas with no or little usage of clicks (northeastern Eurasia, Americas) have not been important for our languages. We do not find clear substrate or lexifier effects either, as African and European languages do not behave very differently with respect to the simple existence of clicks. However, Rickford & Rickford (1976) make a strong case for an African origin of the specific Caribbean "suck teeth" pattern. The WALS and APiCS distinctions are not fine-grained enough to detect this correlation.