Unlocking the secrets of click languages


EXCERPTS: The Tanzanian Rift region has long been a source of fascination for linguists. “It’s the only part of Africa that brings together the four major families of African languages,” explains Didier Demolin, a researcher in experimental phonetics and director of France’s [...] Iraqw and Hadza are two complex-consonant languages of the Tanzanian Rift that are of particular interest to specialists for their incredible richness. “Hadza is part of the Khoisan group, which can have as many as 130 phonemes, compared with an average of 30 for the world’s other languages,” Demolin notes. “By themselves they represent a good half of the phonatory capacity of humankind - in other words half of all the phonemes that our vocal tracts and articulators are physiologically capable of producing!” Hadza uses 65 different consonants, including a dozen clicks, short percussive sounds produced by a reduction of air pressure in the vocal tract. Iraqw is characterised by “ejective” consonants, veritable blasts of sound that are especially intriguing to phoneticians.

Delving into the structure of these two languages to analyse their biomechanical characteristics was the goal of an unprecedented mission carried out in February of this year by an international research team led by Demolin and his associate of 30 years Alain Ghio [...] “The value of this type of study goes beyond the linguistic and cultural, and even beyond human phonetics in a broader sense. The biomechanical analysis of the languages of the Tanzanian rift, taking each class of sounds in turn, will make it possible to compare and retrace the contacts between populations over the course of history, showing which languages have (or haven’t) borrowed phonemes from other groups,” concludes Demolin, who is already planning his next field mission. The populations of the Tanzanian bush have not seen the last of the French scientists and their strange instruments. (MORE - details)

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