The !Kung of the Kalahari

Regarding the !Kung: What’s up with the exclamation point? I understand that it’s necessary to “approximate” names and words from other languages and that we aren’t always going to get it right or even get it close.

But…where the hell does the exclamation point come from? How is it pronounced and why the fuck use an unpronounceable symbol?

The “!” is used to signify a click.

With some languages we have problems because the sounds are neither vowel nor consonent. They are in fact nothing like anything produced in English. So representing them with vowels or consonants do not give an accurate representation, in fact they make the pronunciation worse. To deal with this we use non-English character representations for the non-English sounds.

In the case of the click languages like Xhosa and Kung, the sounds we can’t represent are clicks. Sounds similar to the “tsk tsk” sound of disapproval, or the sound made by bringing your tongue sharply down onto the floor of the mouth that people use when they want to mimic a horse trotting (and don’t have any coconuts).

By placing the “!” in front of a letter you indicate the precise type of click, and where it is made on the pallet. So “!K” is different from “!T”. But both are sounds of clicks. I won’t even pretend I know how to pronounce them though. The only person on the boards that I can think might know is Mr. Dibble, our resident Khoi San, so if I drop his name he might find the thread. Not sure if he speaks the lingo though.

But the simple answer is that it’s pronounced as a click/cluck, made with the tongue/pallet, not using the larynx at all. If you make the “horse trotting” sound I described above it will be at least approximately the sound intended.

Interesting sidenote: The “Kwa” in KwaZulu was originally a similar click sound. Because it was spelled with European characters most people never realised.

The ! in !Kung and other languages represents a click consonant. There are a number of other click consonants, represented by different symbols. The ! represents a popping sound.

There are different systems of orthography to represent clicks. Xhosa and Zulu, two Bantu languages with clicks, use c, x, and q for different kinds of clicks. Khoisan orthography use other, non-letter, symbols such as !. Since clicks are rather different from the sounds typically represented by letters, using non-letter symbols helps to differentiate them.

I know how to make the x-click in “Xhosa”. You shape your mouth like you’re saying “th” and at the same time click your tongue. It comes out sounding something like “koe”.

I thought you shaped your mouth like you’re saying “n”. (Maybe both are used. The “th” type seems to make more of a click and the “n” type makes more of a cluck.)

One thing that makes it hard for non-native speakers to use these sounds is that you actually sort of inhale a bit when you do them… not exactly inhale, but expand the cavity in the back of your mouth to create the slight vacuum between tongue and palate that causes the click when you release the tongue.

It comes from that 80s song: “Everybody have fun tonight, everybody Bang Kung tonight.”

The orthography asspocated with representing click consonants in Latin-alphabet terms is given in the link Colibri provided. The exclamation-point symbol at the beginning of !Kung is the Khoisan-in-Latin-alphabet symbol chosen to symbolize an alveolar click.

FWIW, to the best of my knowledge Mr Dibble is what is termed “Cape Coloured”, the South African ethnic group resulting from the intermarriage of Dutch and Huguenot settlers with the Khoikhoin (“Hottentots” in the old, and now considered highly insulting, terminology), preserved as a distinct ethnic group owing to apartheid, and his native language is English. I see no more reason to expect him to be an expert on click consonants than to expect a native of Vancouver of half-Chinese ancestry to be an expert on Sino-Tibetan tonal usage.

Theres always the motto from the SA coat of arms,

"!ke e:/xarra//ke " , this page has a link to a .wav filefor pronounciation.

The joke at the time was that the government wanted a motto that nobody could pronounce.

Even with familiar letters, pronunciation can still be different, “veld”, Afrikaans for grassland or savannah, for example is pronounced “felt” which is not obvious to an English speaker unfamiliar with the Afrikaans alphabet. Or “Wikus van der Merwe” from the movie District 9, which sounds like “vikus fun der mervuh”.

Looks like pretty standard German pronunciation to me (v -> f, w -> v).

Russell Peters does a hilarious take on this. Video on YouTube, segment starts at about 3:00.

I’m no expert on clicks, although I’m a passable pronouncer of them when I encounter them. The X-click is done a lot more out of the side of the mouth than the palate, whereas the !-click is very front-of-the-mouth.

I am very interested in the !Kung, but have terrible trouble using Google. Is there any way to stop Google ignoring the ! so I just get results about the “!Kung” and not endless Kung fu sites? I’ve tried inverted commas, but so far the best I can do is by combining with Kalahari. But that doesn’t pick up everything I need. Sorry if this is a hijack. Google lesson needed!

So, “!Kung” is not pronounced “{click}-kung” but rather as {particular kind of click}-ung"? Am I understanding correctly?

Yes, that’s right.