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Re: [SACC-L] FW: [ANTHRO-L] Fw: NY Times article: In Click Languages, an Echo of the Tongues of the Ancients

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  • Deborah
    This is most interesting. My husband and I were both raised in a very small Texas town. After we married we moved to the farm, and we learned through trial
    Message 1 of 3 , Mar 22, 2003
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      This is most interesting.  My husband and I were both raised in a very small Texas town.  After we married we moved to the farm, and we learned
      through trial and error,  that the best way to get the animals ( cattle, horses, sheep, and hogs) to move, was to make a clicking sound.  The clicking sound did not seem to disturb them as much as other sounds and they moved.

      "Popplestone, Ann" wrote:

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Jesse S. Cook III [mailto:jesse_cook@...]
      Sent: Saturday, March 22, 2003 12:39 PM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      Subject: [ANTHRO-L] Fw: NY Times article: In Click Languages, an Echo of
      the Tongues of the Ancients

      [My comments are in brackets.]

      In Click Languages, an Echo of the Tongues of the Ancients

      March 18, 2003


      Do some of today's languages still hold a whisper of the ancient mother
      tongue spoken by the first modern humans? Many linguists say language
      changes far too fast for that to be possible. But a new genetic study
      underlines the extreme antiquity of a special group of languages,
      raising the possibility that their distinctive feature was part of the
      ancestral human mother tongue.

      They are the click languages of southern Africa. About 30 survive,
      spoken by peoples like the San, traditional hunters and gatherers, and
      the Khwe, who include hunters and herders.

      Each language has a set of four or five click sounds, which
      are essentially double consonants made by sucking the
      tongue down from the roof of the mouth. Outside of Africa,
      the only language known to use clicks is Damin, an extinct aboriginal
      language in Australia that was taught only to men for initiation rites.

      Some of the Bantu-speaking peoples who reached southern
      Africa from their homeland in western Africa some 2,000
      years ago have borrowed certain clicks from the Khwe, one
      use being to substitute for consonants in taboo words.

      There are reasons to assume that the click languages may be very old.
      One is that the click speakers themselves, particularly a group of
      hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari, belong to an extremely ancient genetic
      lineage, according to analysis of their DNA. They are called the
      Ju|'hoansi, with the upright bar indicating a click. ("Ju|'hoansi" is
      pronounced like "ju-twansi" except that the "tw" is a click sound like
      the "tsk, tsk" of disapproval.)

      All human groups are equally old, being descended from the
      same ancestral population. But geneticists can now place
      ethnic groups on a family tree of humankind. Groups at the
      ends of short twigs, the ones that split only recently from earlier
      populations, are younger, in a genealogical sense, than those at the
      ends of long branches. Judged by mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element
      passed down in the female line, the Ju|'hoansis' line of descent is so
      ancient that it goes back close to the very root of the human family

      Most of the surviving click speakers live in southern
      Africa. But two small populations, the Hadzabe and the
      Sandawe, live near Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, in eastern
      Africa. Two geneticists from Stanford, Dr. Alec Knight and
      Dr. Joanna Mountain, recently analyzed the genetics of the Hadzabe to
      figure out their relationship to their fellow click speakers, the

      The Hadzabe, too, have an extremely ancient lineage that
      also traces back close to the root of the human family
      tree, the Stanford team reports today in the journal
      Current Biology. But the Hadzabe lineage and that of the
      Ju|'hoansi spring from opposite sides of the root. In other
      words, the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi have been separate peoples since
      close to the dawn of modern human existence.

      The Stanford team compared them with other extremely
      ancient groups like the Mbuti of Zaire and the Biaka
      pygmies of Central African Republic and found the
      divergence between the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi might be
      the oldest known split in the human family tree.

      Unless each group independently invented click languages at some later
      time, that finding implies that click languages were spoken by the very
      ancient population from which the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi descended.
      "The divergence of those genetic lineages is among the oldest on earth,"
      Dr. Knight said. "So one could certainly make the inference that clicks
      were present in the mother tongue."

      If so, the modern humans who left Africa some 40,000 years
      ago and populated the rest of the world

      [Actually, the first modern humans left Africa 100,000 years ago.
      Furthermore, they were in eastern Europe 48,000 years ago and in
      Australia at least 40,000 and perhaps 50,000 years ago.]

      might have been
      click speakers who later lost their clicks. Australia,
      where the Damin click language used to be spoken, is one of
      the first places outside Africa known to have been reached
      by modern humans.

      [Rolling on the floor laughing.  It could only have been "one of the
      first places" if they had *flown* from Africa to Australia!]

      But the antiquity of clicks, if they are indeed extremely ancient,
      raises a serious puzzle. Joseph Greenberg of Stanford University, the
      great classifier of the world's languages, put all the click languages
      in a group he called Khoisan. But Sandawe and Hadzane, the language of
      the Hadzabe, are what linguists call isolates. They are unlike each
      other and every other known language. Apart from their clicks, they have
      very little in common even with the other Khoisan languages.

      That the Hadzabe and the Ju|'hoansi differ as much in their language as
      in their genetics is a reflection of the same fact. They are extremely
      ancient, and there has been a long time for both their language and
      their genetics to diverge. The puzzle is why they should have retained
      their clicks when everything else in their languages has changed.

      Dr. Knight suggested that clicks might have survived
      because in the savanna, where most click speakers live, the sounds allow
      hunters to coordinate activity without disturbing prey. Whispered speech
      that uses just clicks sounds more like branches creaking than human
      talk. Clicks make up more than 40 percent of the language and suffice
      for hunters to convey their meanings, Dr. Knight said.

      Dr. Anthony Traill, an expert on click languages at the University of
      Witwatersrand in South Africa, said he did not find the hunting idea
      very plausible.

      "Clicks are acoustically high-impact sounds for mammalian ears," Dr.
      Traill said, "probably the worst sounds to use if you are trying to
      conceal your presence."

      But he agreed that it was a puzzle to understand why clicks
      had been retained for so long. He has found that in the ordinary process
      of language change, certain types of click can be replaced by nonclick
      consonants, but he has never seen the reverse occur. "It is highly
      improbable that a fully fledged click system could arise from nonclick
      precursors," Dr. Traill said.

      Because languages change so fast, it is difficult for
      linguists to measure their age. Indeed, most think that languages more
      than a few thousand years old can rarely be dated. But if Dr. Traill is
      right, that clicks can be lost but not reinvented, that implies that
      clicks may be a very ancient component of language.

      Dr. Bonny Sands, a linguist at Northern Arizona University, said click
      sounds were not particularly hard to make. All children can make them.
      Dr. Sands saw no reason why clicks could not have been invented
      independently many times and, perhaps, lost in all areas of the world
      except Africa.

      "There is nothing to be gained by assuming that clicks must have been
      invented only once," she said, "or in presuming that certain types of
      phonological systems are more primordial than others."

      Dr. Traill said that although a single click was not
      difficult, rattling off a whole series is another matter, because they
      are like double consonants. "Fluent articulation of clicks in running
      speech is by any measure difficult," he said. "It requires more
      articulatory work, like taking two stairs at a time."

      Given the laziness of the human tongue, why have clicks
      been retained by click speakers while everything else
      changed? "That is a major problem," Dr. Traill said. "All
      the expectations would be that they would have succumbed to
      the pressures of change that affect all languages. I do not know the

      A leading theory to explain the emergence of behaviorally modern humans
      50,000 years ago is that some genetic change enabled one group of people
      to perfect modern speech. The new power of communication, according to
      an archaeologist, Dr. Richard Klein

      [Here he is again.]

      made possible the advanced behaviors
      that begin to be reflected in the archaeological record of
      the period.

      The Stanford team calculated a date of 112,000 years, plus
      or minus 42,000 years, for the separation of the Hadzabe
      and Ju|'hoansi populations. If this means that modern
      speech existed that long ago, it does not appear to fit
      with Dr. Klein's thesis.

      [That isn't the only thing that doesn't fit with Klein's thesis.]

      But Dr. Knight said the estimate was very approximate and
      added that he believed the new findings about click
      language were fully compatible with Dr. Klein's theory.
      Clicks might have been part of the first fully articulate
      human language that appeared among some group of early
      humans 50,000 years ago. Those with the language gene would have
      outcompeted all other groups, so that language become universal in the
      surviving human population.

      That would explain why the metaphorical Adam hit it off
      with Eve. They just clicked.

      Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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