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Miriam Makeba: What's up with that clicking sound anyway?

Miriam Makeba, whose life is celebrated on Google's homepage on what would be her 81st birthday Monday, helped introduce the world to the Xhosa language and its distinctive click consonants. 

Miriam Makeba - Qongqothwane
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Listen carefully to Miriam Makeba's 1957 hit single "Pata Pata," and you'll hear an odd click interspersed with the lyrics.

It's not the drummer. It's Makeba's voice.

"Everywhere we go, people often ask me, 'How do you make that noise,'" she said to a Dutch TV studio audience in 1979. "It used to offend me because it isn't a noise. It's my language."

Makeba grew up speaking Xhosa, the second most common language in South Africa, after Zulu. Like Zulu, Xhosa uses the Roman alphabet. Xhosa's three types of clicks, which linguists call dental, lateral, and alveolar, are written with the letters C, X, and Q

To make the "C" click, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, near your incisors and make a tsk! tsk!  tsk! sound, as though you were attempting an a capella rendition of the theme song to "60 Minutes." 

To make an "X" click, place the side of your tongue against your teeth and inhale, making a click, as though you were urging a horse along. 

The "Q" click is the loudest. It is produced by putting the tip of the tongue against the roof of your mouth and snapping it downward in a "clop!" sound. Think of a horse walking on cobblestones. 

Easy, right? Except that each click in Xhosa is followed, without any pause, by a vowel sound. So, for instance, he word "Xhosa" is actally pronounced "<Click!>osa." Not so easy now, is it?  


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