25 May 2007

clicks are hard to do

i caught a bit of Fresh Air on NPR as i was running an errand this afternoon. they were replaying an interview from about a year ago, featuring Nicholas Wade, a science reporter from the New York Times. the segment is entitled "DNA Analysis Illuminates the History of Man" and one part of it is dedicated to the spread of language in and outside of Africa as early human populations moved around that part of the world and genetically diverged from one another. Mr. Wade is obviously not a linguist, but said nothing really objectionable until this, regarding why there are a small set of languages that exhibit click sounds:

clicks are quite hard to do...it's very hard to do a double click, which several of these languages have. so it looks like once you have clicks you can lose them, but it's very hard to see anyone inventing a click from scratch. so if that's the case clicks have only been lost and not gained, and they must be of great antiquity.
now i remember my introductory phonology class and i remember saying "these sounds are hard to do" during our unit on non-English sounds. but to say objectively that sounds are hard to do is ridiculous. sounds are either possible or impossible (and some are impossible, just because the vocal tract doesn't create the shape that would cause such a sound). non-native sounds can be difficult for people to do. for example, i cannot, no matter how hard i try, produce a trill r, but if i had grown up in Italy, where the trill r is part of the native language, i would be able to produce them perfectly. Wade's assertion that clicks wouldn't be invented because they are hard to do is preposterous. furthermore, they must have been started by somebody, and there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason why these earlier humans would be more likely to "invent" the click than modern humans, who wouldn't do such a silly thing. it's true, native speakers of English aren't going to be going around trying out clicks and inserting them into their speech and saying "hey this is the Cool New Thing in phonemes, so everyone should adopt it." i suppose the bottom line of the story, which was that the peoples who do speak click languages have highly similar genetics, is valid and useful to both anthropologists and linguists. it also has scientific basis for uniting and distinguishing these peoples, but i guarantee that they don't pride themselves on the difficulty of their language.


Alex Cristia said...

Dear D. A.,

I agree with you - at least in principle. But your example of the trilled r hits the key: in my native Argentina, /rr/ is very much appreciated, but a small percentage of the population is either completely unable to produce them, or can only do so after extensive training. I think the answer lies in your conception of 'impossible sound', which the vocal tract cannot be shaped to produce: these people who live their Spanish lives sadly /rr/-less have an unusually short tongue or a high palate.

So your point re the clicks is totally valid, as is the idea of keeping (a) and (b) below separated:

(a) Non-native sounds are hard for adults to produce because motor patterns (and possibly perceptual strategies) have not been developed for these sounds at an appropriate age.

(b) Many sound patterns or sound distributions are similar (or similarly uncommon) across languages because vocal tracts and perceptual apparatuses (lovely word - I wonder if it's English) are very similar across adult populations. But if you change the vocal tract configuration, the 'common' or 'easy' sound patterns change: lots and lots of kids produce 't' in words like 'kitty' (to their parents' great embarrassment), but t->k is not that common cross-linguistically. The reason for this being that kids have an unusually large tongue relative to their mouth size. In short, b.1. kids are weird; b.2. Kids often speak in tongues.


PS: Great blog!

jellyblob said...

Hey look, old post!

This makes me think of, well, lots of things.

First of all, I'm 13 and have been into linguistics for a while. On top of having learned Spanish and English at the same time, this means that I still have some time to add more phonemes to my library of sorts. Having spoken Spanish for that amount of time, I can produce trill R's. ^_^ I can't always produce certain clicks and ejectives, though. I'll take my IPA chart out of my pocket later on and make an inventory of sounds I trip over.

Now, I like to learn at least a little about the phonology and orthography of pretty much every language I come across. Apparently, this has influenced my voice in some way because at least my violin teacher and sister think that I have a slight accent. Neither can place it as belonging to any one particular language, but rather to a lot of different languages, which doesn't surprise me all that much.