Click consonant

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Clicks are speech sounds found as consonants in many languages of southern Africa, and in three languages of East Africa. Examples of these sounds familiar to English speakers are the tsk! tsk! (American spelling) or tut-tut (British spelling) used to express disapproval or pity, the tchick! used to spur on a horse, and the clip-clop! sound children make to imitate a horse trotting.

Technically, clicks are obstruents articulated with two closures (points of contact) in the mouth, one forward and one at the back. The pocket of air enclosed between is rarefied by a sucking action of the tongue (i.e. clicks have a lingual ingressive airstream mechanism). The forward closure is then released, producing what may be the loudest consonants in the language, although in some languages such as Hadza and Sandawe, clicks can be more subtle and may even be mistaken for ejective stops.

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What clicks sound like

There are five places of articulation at which click consonants occur. In IPA, a click is symbolized by placing the assigned symbol for the place of click articulation adjacent to a symbol for a nonclick sound at the rear place of articulation. The IPA symbols are used in writing most Khoisan languages, but Bantu languages such as Zulu typically use Latin c, x and q for dental, lateral, and alveolar clicks respectively.

  • The easiest clicks for English speakers are the dental clicks written with a single pipe, ǀ. They are all sharp (high-pitched) squeaky sounds made by sucking on the front teeth. A simple dental click is used in English to express pity or to shame someone, and sometimes to call an animal, and is written tsk! in American English, or tut-tut! in British English.
  • Next most familiar to English speakers are the lateral clicks written with a double pipe, ǁ. They are also squeaky sounds, though less sharp than ǀ, made by sucking on the molars on either side (or both sides) of the mouth. A simple lateral click is made in English to get a horse moving, and is conventionally written tchick!

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