Monday, 14 June 2010

making clicks

In a response to Friday’s blog, Ryan asked
Do you have any tricks for teaching people to pronounce clicks? I'm okay with pulmonic and glottalic consonants, but with the velarics I can only seem to do simple, singly articulated dental, postalveolar, and lateral clicks, usually nasalized unless I try really hard. Forget adding a coarticulation like aspiration or voicing. I'm wondering if you have any insight into pedagogical techniques for acquiring such sounds.

Here is how I would teach people to do the Zulu clicks. (Given the font problem, I’ll use the old IPA symbols.)

1. Take the “simple, singly articulated” clicks as the starting point. Make sure that you can produce each of them on its own.

Zulu cIPA ʇdentallike tut-tut, tsk-tsk
Zulu qIPA ʗpostalveolara single, hollow sound
Zulu xIPA ʖlateralgee-up

2. Try to become conscious of the fact that while you were making these sounds you had a velar closure, as in the hold phase of k. Say ʇ, and after releasing the tip of the tongue think about the back of the tongue. You should find that it’s in contact with the velum. Likewise for ʗ and ʖ.
3. Now work on that simultaneous velar articulation. Take a word such as English bookcasekkeɪs, with a long (geminated) velar plosive. (If you’re Italian, try secco; if you’re Japanese, sekken せっけん (石鹸), etc.). Pause halfway through the long k plosive. Make a few clicks as you hold on to the velar closure.
4. Now, repeat the nonsense disyllable ɑkːɑ, first as it is, then with a click in the middle of the velar hold. Start slowly, then speed up. Reduce the duration of the velar hold until it is like an ordinary single k, but with a simultaneous click in the middle.
5. Lose the initial ɑ. Try to repeat with each of your three clicks. You have produced the Zulu syllables ca ʇa, qa ʗa, xa ʖa.
6. Pronounce the Zulu words cacá ‘be clear’, qaqá ‘undo’, xoxá ‘tell’. (Each is the imperative of a verb. The first syllable is low-pitched, the second high. Vowels in penultimate syllables are long and stressed.) You have now overcome the first hurdle, which is to make clicks in words, in running speech, rather than just in isolation.

7. Next, tackle the aspirated clicks. You have to release the velar k with aspiration. If you can already produce unaspirated k= and aspirated , this should be straightforward. Practise your three clicks with an aspirated velar release as you finish. You have produced the Zulu syllables cha ʇʰa, qha ʗʰa, xha ʖʰa.
8. Pronounce the Zulu words chachá ‘shell peas’, qhaqhá ‘cut open’, xhoxhá ‘jab’.

9. Next, take the voiced clicks. You have to pronounce these in the middle of a g instead of a k. Practise ɑɡːɑ (compare big girl), adding a click in the middle. Then reduce the length of the ɡ. Keep the voicing going throughout. When you have achieved this with each of the three clicks, you will have produced the Zulu syllables gca gʇa, gqa gʗa, gxa gʖa.
10. Pronounce the Zulu words gcagcá ‘marry’, gqâgqa ‘scatter’, gxugxúma ‘be nervous’. (á = high tone, â = falling tone, unmarked = low.)

11. Next, the nasal (“nasalized”) clicks. (Some people, like Ryan, find these easier than than the plain ones.) They are accompanied not by k or g but by ŋ. Make a long ŋː, then put a click in the middle. (Keep the voicing going). I’m assuming your previous phonetic training has taught you to produce syllable-initial ŋ — just check that you can do ŋa. Add a simultaneous click, and you have produced the Zulu syllables nca ŋʇa, nqa ŋʗa, nxa ŋʖa.
12. Pronounce the Zulu words ncencéza ‘jingle’, nqenqéza ‘ring’, nxenxéza ‘urge on horse’.

13. You know how to make breathy voice (murmur). Make a breathy-voiced ŋ̤. (The subscript-diaeresis diacritic is problematic in this font, so I’ll write this as ŋʱ.) Add a simultaneous click and a following vowel, and you have the Zulu syllables ngca ŋʱʇa, ngqa ŋʱʗa, ngxa ŋʱʖa.
14. Pronounce the Zulu words ngcengcá ‘suckle’, ngqangcqá ‘tremble with rage’, íngxângxa ‘green-striped frog’.

15. You have now learnt all fifteen Zulu clicks: three basic clicks multiplied by five kinds of accompanying velar articulation.
16. Reinforce your knowledge by working through Ladefoged’s examples. If you feel strong, look at this video clip, which purports to make the very similar Xhosa clicks “easy to remember”.

(My examples are all taken from Say it in Zulu by D.C. Rycroft and A.B. Ngcobo, classroom materials made available to me at SOAS, 1976.)


  1. You have ʖ for ʇ a couple of times.

  2. Don't ask me! But it's Ladefoged's sound files that make it sound easy! He doesn't give the murmured ones, though. I thought for a moment the examples were in a font that worked, but of course they're in graphics.

    I have been googling the symbol to see if anyone does give the dental click in a font that works, and the big laugh is that of course the first hit is Wikipedia, where we know it's indistinguishable, and that is the article on dental clicks itself which says

    >Prior to 1989, [ʇ] was the IPA representation of the voiceless velar dental click. It is still occasionally used where the symbol [ǀ] would be confounded with other symbols, such as prosody marks.<

    As if it were only non-alphabetic symbols!

    And the vast majority of the hits for the vertical bar click symbol itself are web pages where it's not only indistinguishable, but used for just about anything but its intended purpose.

    The ad-hoc device of using | for it makes it completely unsearchable, of course, as David reports that he found when he tried to edit Wikipedia. I was aware you had been using | on this site from way back, but a fortiori your site search just goes berserk when I try to find where.

    The situation with this IPA aberration really is dire. Even the lateral click flips in and out of indistinguishability as the two vertical bars merge at pretty well half of the font size settings.

  3. Mallamb

    If ever again, you're at a Wkipedia page which might have a dental click symbol, you don't have to copy and paste into another program to find out. Just press the Edit button, and the true shape will be revealed.

  4. I'm with you until #13; I only know how to make breathy-voiced oral continuants (or in fact vowels), not nasal ones. I can make modla voice or creaky voice, but breathy voice seems to insist on coming out normal. Any tricks for that? Or is it adequate for Zulu to assign the breathiness to the following vowel?

  5. Thanks! I think I've almost got those aspirated and voiced clicks down. Focusing on the velar closure was a key step.

  6. John Cowan: in Rycroft's analysis, all pulmonic voiced obstruents in Zulu have breathy voice rather than modal voice, which is why they are "depressors" (= make a following tone lower than would otherwise be the case). So auditorily it is a combination of breathiness and the depressor tonal effect, both detectable mainly on the following vowel. The ngc, ngq, ngxseries have these qualities, while the nc, nq, nx series lack them.

  7. Nice work, John - I suppose you also have something to say about the bilabial click? The rounded bilabial click, like other clicks, is common with a pragmatic meaning, as in the "air kiss" of English and many other communities, but seems to be rare as a phoneme (whether in rounded or spread variants). Cheers, Dafydd

  8. "Take the “simple, singly articulated” clicks as the starting point. Make sure that you can produce each of them on its own." - yeah, if only I could do that. A kind of suction noise is all there's to be heard...

  9. I still have a hard time distinguishing between Zulu C and X.

  10. David

    Just press the Edit button, and the true shape will be revealed.

    All the Edit button reveals to me (in e.g. the Dental click article) is that as you say they are using the keyboard ASCII character (|), the "vertical bar", as it's called in Unicode (U007C), for the code preceding the ǀ, the dental click, which is still indistinguishable from the LC Latin l even in edit mode, but that they don't distinguish between this "vertical bar" (U+007C) and the dental click symbol (U+01C0), since they proceed to call it a "vertical bar" in apposition, and link that to the article "Vertical bar", where they give its use in "Mathematics", "Physics", "Computing", including of course Wikipedia, where it's called a "pipe(d) link", and "Phonetics and orthography", where it says "the vertical bar is used to write the dental click (ǀ)", and gives a link back to where we started from!

    Well it's not supposed to be used to write the dental click (although it seems on most sites people are reduced to doing so because the site fonts don't distinguish the dental click from the LC Latin l), and in fact in the above quote the symbol given by Wikipedia in brackets is the dental click symbol (U+01C0), and the paragraph headed "Phonetics and orthography" goes on to say that it has its own Unicode point (U+01C0).

    What a shambles!

  11. Forget adding a coarticulation like aspiration or voicing. I'm wondering if you have any insight into pedagogical techniques for acquiring such sounds.

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