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I am currently trying to learn Tamil.

My friend who is teaching me seems to be making a clicking sound with one word in particular, and she can't seem to tell she's making it.

The word is குளம் pronounced as [kʊ˞ɭʼʌm] - meaning pool or pond.

Every time she says it my mind is blown when she transitions from the retroflex ɭ to the ʌ.

The distance between these two sounds seems to be the maximum possible distance it can travel between two sounds. It's as if the tongue is slammed into the floor of the mouth causing a click-type sound. About 50% of the time she says the word I can hear a distinct click.

I'm wondering if any phonologists out there have noticed these kinds of unintentional click sounds in any languages.

Also, at what point would a click serve some sort of contrastive phoneme? Is it even possible for a language as old as Tamil to develop clicks?

  • What do you mean by "at what point"? Are you asking for a length of time? Or are you asking what the criteria are for a speech sound to be considered contrastive? Or something else? – musicallinguist Jan 7 '14 at 17:51
  • My question stems from the fact that Tamil is so old and has such a rigid system of contrastive phonemes. Could this theoretically be a route by which language could go from having no clicks to having phonemic clicks? – Ryan Ward Jan 7 '14 at 18:13
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    Tamil isn't older than any other language. All languages (apart from pidgins, creoles and the like) presumably go back to Proto-World, or one of the Proto-Worlds if there was more than one. – TKR Jan 7 '14 at 22:24
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    To say that "Tamil is so old" is linguistically a meaningless statement. All languages are old, and all languages change. – fdb Jan 8 '14 at 1:14
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    Saying a language is "old" can mean a couple of things: It was known to have become differentiated from its ancestor comparitively early. It is comparitively conservative and the modern form is more like its ancient form than other languages. It is known to have been standardized (often by acquiring a writing system) at a comparatively early date. But just saying "old" without which of these you mean, and what you're comparing it too, since they are all relative, is indeed quite meaningless. Otherwise most languages other than Esperanto and Nicaraguan Sign Language are "so old". – hippietrail Jan 8 '14 at 12:28
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I haven't personally observed this phenomenon with clicks, but there are well-known cases of consonant epenthesis that are explained in articulatory terms. For example, it is common to observe an epenthetic [t] between [n] and [s], as in the word chance, since the early closure of the nasal passage turns the nasal stop into an oral one before the air gets released for the fricative.

To address the second part of the question, this isn't the sort of situation in which we'd expect contrastive clicks to arise.

It is common to name phonemes according to the form in which they most often surface, out of convenience and convention. So, if phoneme X most often surfaces as [ɭ] but optionally as [ɭ!] in a certain environment--say before non-high vowels, we name that phoneme /ɭ/. We might formulate a rule that says /ɭ/ is optionally realized as [ɭ!] before non-high vowels (or optionally insert [!] between /ɭ/ and non-high vowels). If the next-generation language learner analyzed the [ɭ!] as being the required realization before non-high vowels, we might consider [ɭ!] to be the more common realization of phoneme X and therefore call the phoneme /ɭ!/ and reformulate our rule to say /ɭ!/ is realized as [ɭ] before high vowels (and as [ɭ!] elsewhere). Over successive generations, the [ɭ] part of [ɭ!] might even be lost, so the rule would become /!/ is realized as [ɭ] before high vowels (and as [!] elsewhere). In this situation, we could reasonably say that [!] contrasts with "null" (i.e. the lack of [!]) in as much as the hypothetical words [!ʌm] and [ʌm] would mean two different things. And it would contrast with other (non-ɭ) consonants.

But notice that in all of these different cases, the phoneme inventory itself hasn't really changed. Just the allophones of phoneme X and what we choose to call its underlying form have changed, since [ɭ] and [!] or [ɭ] and [ɭ!] would not be contrastive.

As you probably know, for [ɭ] and [ɭ!] to be considered respective realizations of contrastive phonemes, we'd need to see evidence of minimal pairs--for example a lexicon in which [kʊ˞ɭʌm] means one thing and [kʊ˞ɭ!ʌm] means something else. This situation is unlikely to arise spontaneously under the circumstances you're describing.

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I think what you are hearing is the retroflex lateral approximant being flapped. There are four retroflex consonants in Modern Standard Tamil - three of them (retro stop, retro nasal and retro lateral approx) are flapped when they occur intervocalically (between vowels). So the /ɭ/ between vowels becomes a retroflex lateral flap. I believe you're confusing this flapped realisation of the phoneme as a click.

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