Do we have a scientific theory explaining why the click consonants were developed, and why they are used almost exclusivly in praerie regions?

I've watched a BBC documentary about the evolution of humans, and the speaker noticed when hunting with San, that their clicks are good to hear in high grass on short distances, but the speaker was in the same time very hard to locate, so they are perfect adaptation to group hunting in such environment.

From the other way, I can't imagine communicating with clicks on large distances, so the clicks may not be practical in boreal forest during ice age etc.

However, I've failed to google interesting topics, so maybe theses on that topic exist, but only in paper form in some universities libraries?

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    "Why" is a hard question to answer... "when" and "how" would be simpler... :D
    – Alenanno
    Jun 6, 2012 at 11:23
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    The thing that makes clicks "special" in languages that use them linguistically is that they effectively behave like "any other boring consonant"-- i.e. they form part of utterances, just like other consonants, and are accompanied by whatever other sounds the language has. So even if the presenter's premise was true that, say, a click was harder to locate than a vowel... so what? Why wouldn't the enemy just locate them with the vowel (or most easily locatable sound) instead? Jun 6, 2012 at 18:53
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    In any case, let me put it like this: I don't think there's any well-established theory of phonemicisation based on local land morphology... Jun 6, 2012 at 18:54
  • ...In French, /t/ or /d/ may be realised as a click before /k/. What's the theory here-- that it's easier to hear above the sound of the coffee machine...? Jun 6, 2012 at 18:55

2 Answers 2


I don't know of any paper trying to explain why click consonants might have developed in languages in the first place. But something to keep in mind is that most languages I know use clicks as non-segmental signs, for instance the English interjection tsktsk, or the way you call a horse. Germans have a bilabial click that indicates something like "tough question/don't know". Intuitively I have a feeling that clicks are very iconic (for instance the click we use with horses somewhat resembles the sound of a gallop, the disapproving tsktsk that of a slap), but my intuition might be wrong and I don't know of any studies on this. Acoustically clicks are quite distinct in the signal, meaning even in difficult conditions they should offer high recoverability compared to say a fricative. On the other hand, complexity comes with a phonological price tag, so such an argument in phonetics has a counter argument in phonology. I could imagine that acoustic distinctness/recoverability is a good thing under difficult conditions (e.g. noisy environment, dense forestation) or communication over a long distance, but whistled language is generally a lot better for this and the environmental conditions around click-rich languages do not really speak for this being a factor.

There is a paper here which suggests that clicks don't offer any acoustic processing advantage per se in languages where they are not used as regular segments. And this paper has a nice overview of literature on linguistic change involving clicks, which might be of interest, but doesn't offer an answer to "why"--in fact one may see this as partial evidence that because clicks are segmentally complex they might be difficult phonologically.

Regarding the question of whether clicks were part of a hypothetical proto-human language and then lost elsewhere to be only retained as non-segmental signs, see Knight et. al.'s (2003) paper arguing that this is the case, from a genetic perspective authored by geneticists and anthropologists. And then compare this with Tom Güldemann's (2007) paper in ULPA responding to that very paper, from a linguistic perspective, arguing that there isn't really that much support for that hypothesis.


Clicks are used by other animals for echo-location. In an environment with lots of echoing objects, clicks would be hard to use for communication. Because they don't use (pharyngeal) airflow (unlike all other phonemes), they would be easy to skip when making up sounds. {Perhaps there is no research to cite because this is common sense. It's not common sense if it's wrong...}

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    Why does this explain the development of clicks in those languages which have them? Which languages are spoken in environments with lots of echoing languages. BTW, clicks do use airflow -- ingressive, like with implosives.
    – user6726
    Oct 23, 2015 at 22:19
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    @aml, welcome to Linguistics.SE. While your post may answer the question, the way it's written it rather looks like a hypothesis based on common sense. Here we prefer more scientific approach. It would be great if you provided with some credible references, citing some researches, etc. Note, the question itself is very challenging, but during three years since it has been asked, nobody posted any answer. Likely, because such researches are rare to find or even inexistent. If you have one, please edit your answer. Oct 24, 2015 at 5:30
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    How is the airflow of clicks different from that of velar stops? Why does your reasoning not apply to velar stops?
    – user6726
    Nov 16, 2015 at 21:04
  • Clicks have more power, which gives a stronger echo. A good sonar signal will have high amplitude and a short duration (and a descending pitch).
    – amI
    Feb 10, 2016 at 18:53

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