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Were Our Ancestors As likely to Go 'Cluck' As They Were To Go 'Ugh' ?

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posted on Aug, 24 2005 @ 04:30 AM
Vocal communication is not uncommon in the animal world at a very basic level these vocal communications could be called language even if they are far removed from the sophisticated language skills employed by human beings.

Though it is almost impossible to discern the complexity of communication in other animals including apes, birds, and sea mammals it is assumed that communication is limited to the most basic and vital for the survival of each species. Fear, warning, and mating availability are amoung the vocal communications that we know of and they are for the most part differentiated from each other by pitch, volume, and urgency heard in the pace of the communication.

Humans today still employ these most primitive techiques when communicating these basic signals but in more sophisticated language pitch, volume, and pace is all but replaced by precision found in the development of various vowel and consonant sounds and their combination to create words which can convey more than just primitive and instictive communication.

So just how has our language evolved into the technical and sophisticated device we take for granted every day ?

My interest in this topic really began when I first heard a Xhosa African on television. Anyone who has ever heard the Xhosa spoken language couldn't help but be struck by 'clicking' and 'clucking' sound used as a consonant which litters the language amonst the more familiar vowel/consonant sounds we're used to. Aparently Xhosa has 15 distinct 'clicking' sounds but as with many unfamiliar things they all sound the same to me.

Xhosa is not the only language that uses this 'clicking' but all that do (to my knowledge) are found in Southern Africa. Which raises a very interesting question in my mind. Given that this part of Africa is very close to where we humans first evolved, were our earliest ancestors as likely to 'cluck' as they were to grunt or go 'Ugh' ?

It should be noted that most of us still use similar sounds today to communicate we just don't associate it with language. Some of us tut, some click like a camera when they wink. and some cluck their tongue while shaking their head. All of these are communications but what differentiates Xhosa and similar Southern African languages from this is the incorporation into phonetic language.

At some point when communication skills are developing, variations in pitch, volume, and pace are insuffericient to communicate the expanding range of concepts that an increasingly sophisticated social grouping needs to express to develope further. The initial language innovation would not be to develope sophisticated precision vowel/consonant words but to instead find new and distinct sounds like 'clicking' until combinations using all sounds, pitch, volume, and pace have been exhausted and the neccessity to develope a more sophisticated language becomes an imperative if social development is to continue.

In effect these 'clicking','clucking' sounds are the missing link in our language developement which has been discarded, for the most part, by our early ancestors over time.

As mentioned above we still use 'tuts', 'clucks', and 'clicks' today but we seem to use them only to accompany and emphasise strong visual signals. At some point when language became the primary form of social interaction superceding visual signals we discarded these sounds choosing instead the sounds familiar to us all. We probably used single syllable word combinations first to describe the concepts that needed to be communicated most often. This is almost the same in any language. Sun, moon, star, food, drink, good, bad, all on syllable whereas as rarer or extremely sophisticated concepts must use the multi-syllabic combinations that are left over.

Xhosa shows that this 'clucking' was not abandoned by all and simply incorporated into the language as any other consonant sound we use today.

I don't know if anyone has any thoughts on this. I know I'd be interested in reading them.

posted on Aug, 24 2005 @ 05:13 AM
Great post John.

I too have been struck by the Xhosa speach

What about looking at the way babies aquire speach?
now its been a long time since I read this, but they start out with sounds that require little effort the first sound is "P" "Paa" just blowing air over the lips.

Obviously there are experts who can join this topic, but I always imagined that primitive languages would develop using primitive speach patterns, such as that displayed by babies.

I would imagine that there is a realtionship between xhosa speach and the simple sounds a baby coulld make. (not that I am saying xhosa is "primitive" to all you PC'ers out there)

[edit on 24-8-2005 by Netchicken]

posted on Aug, 24 2005 @ 05:24 AM
Thanks for the reply there Netty.

I did a quick check beforte I posted the above (mainly to try and find an audio file for those unfamiliar with how Xhosa sounds[ unsuccessfully]) and one thing I missed out which directly relates to what you're saying is that apparently it takes Xhosa children up to 5 years to acquire the 'clicking' sound.

So it's not easy at all which probably indicates why other groups of people abandoned it for the sounds we're more used to.

posted on Aug, 24 2005 @ 05:30 AM
Interesting concept, and probably true.

Another question would be could Neanderthals speak this way? Because that wuld give them a far more comlex vocabulary than we had expected of them.

posted on Aug, 24 2005 @ 06:00 AM
I think Neanderthals probably used clicks, whistles, and hand signals as well as pitch, volume, and pace but I doubt they used them in a sophisticated way. Perhaps a few nouns like food and fire and and few verbs like hunt and eat which must have been essential for basic communication.

Just to note that Neanderthals weren't direct ancestors of modern humans but a sub species of a common ancestor.

Again whistling is quite interesting too. Humans still whistle to communicate whether it's a wolf whistle to attract the attention of a pretty girl or other whistles to grab attention or alert each other to danger.

Dolphins use clicks as well as 'song'. 'Song' is nothing but pitch, volume and pace but the clicks add another dimension to their communication. Because of the nature of their enviroment which means that audio signals are very effective they too have fewer visual signals than other mammals. Which could be a sign of their own "language" evolution and hrowing intelligence.

posted on Aug, 24 2005 @ 06:17 AM
This was a truly excellent post, well-researched and reasoned and eloquently stated.

Human languages develop and change in response to human experiences and requirements. There can be little doubt that very early human cultures possessed languages which were, in most respects, not as advanced as popular languages in existence today. The reason for this is simply one of necessity. Language probably developed as a means of passing on basic survival information from one generation to the next: "This plant is poisonous and grows at this time of the year in these locations" or "This is the correct way to hunt this particular animal". Although these concepts may seem simple, we now believe that they were too complex to be conveyed through the use of sign language alone.

Furthermore, language would have developed increasingly to respond to abstract concepts for which there was no example in the physical world. It is simple to physically show somebody how to fish. It is more difficult (though not impossible) to convey many of the concepts of religion through sign language alone. Since there is nothing you can use in the physical world as a reference, you are forced to adapt your spoken language to convey your thoughts and beliefs of the immaterial.

As the process of language development began, I believe, as John bull has already pointed out, that human language would have consisted of simple sounds, probably combined with a complex form of sign language. The argument for this is that human development typically follows the path of least resistance. If there is no need for complex words, if your daily routine can be conducted without the use of complex language, then your communication will remain relatively simple. It is at this stage that I believe a majority of human societies would have employed the basic clicks that, although we all still use them to some extent, are widely disused in most world languages as anything other than techniques for conveying the most basic messages (again, as John bull pointed out, clucking your tongue to indicate annoyance). As human interactions and experiences became increasingly complex, the need for ever more sophisticated language forms arose and language adapted as necessary.

So why then would the simple clicks have remained an integral part of the Xhosa and other languages? The suggestion that they are a hold-over from the earliest days of human communication is an excellent one and goes a long way towards explaining why they seeem to be region-specific (i.e. confined largely to southern Africa).

It should be pointed out that it would be unlikely that these sounds would have remained in use through many tens of thousands of years of human language development. However, an argument for just such a scenario lies in the impact of specific regions on the development of language. Simply put, the clicks may have survived the passage of time because the peoples of southern Africa found them useful in communicating ideas and concepts specific to their region. As humans moved out from that region and encountered different environments and the need for different forms of communication and language, the clicks may have lost their usefulness. Over time, the clicks used by the peoples of southern Africa would have remained in use, albeit changing to suit specific regions. This would help to explain why Xhosa is merely one of a number of "clicking languages" spoken throughout south-eastern Africa today.

It should also be pointed out that many of the languages spoken by cultures that have in the past been wrongly labelled as "primitive" are in fact incredibly advanced in areas that the culture considers important or useful. Take, for instance, the example of the indigenous people of my country, the Australian Aborigines. Here is a culture that is as old as any on Earth and which was labelled as possessing a primitive language by the first European settlers. As I quickly learned through my university anthropology studies, it is anything but. Aboriginal language concepts of kinship and land ownership are far more advanced than anything utilised by the European settlers. In not understanding these advanced concepts and methods of communicating, the Europeans simply declared that the Aboriginal language was primitive, when it was anything but. To the Aboriginal people, concepts such as kinship were of the utmost importance and were thus more complex in their language. This example helps to highlight the impact that specific regions, beliefs and requirements can have on the development of language.

John bull, forgive me if I repeated much of what you said, but I found your theory to be extremely interesting and tend to agree with you on most points. I think you may be right in arguing that the clicking sounds of Xhosa may be a remnant from a time when human communication was less complex. I think that they have been adapted and retained by the peoples of that region due to the fact that they have retained their usefulness specific to that area.

As for Neanderthals, although some research into the placement of the Neanderthal larynx indicates that they lacked the capacity for speech or at least complex language, I feel that, given that we possess evidence that Neanderthals engaged in advanced and abstract concepts such as religion and complex, organised hunts and herblore, some rudimentary form of language would have been necessary to convey these ideas to younger generations.

The following sites have some good introductory information regarding the Xhosa language:



[edit on 24/8/05 by Jeremiah25]

posted on Aug, 24 2005 @ 07:42 AM
Thankyou very much for that post Jeremiah25. Far from simply repeating any points I may have made you've run with it and turned up more interesting associated subjects which have certainly given me pause for thought.

I am especially intrigued by what you've written about misunderstood "primitive" languages and it's going to give me something to think about today.

My initial thoughts on this topic are that that misunderstanding is couple to a large degree by cultural arrogance. The forces of evolution act on everything which involves life and language is no different but because many of us look around us and see that evolution has led to us we arrogantly ignore the fact that evolution doesn't always pick the best long term solution only the best short term solution.

A language's sophistication is no guarentee of it's survival when so many other factors (eg military, agricultural) are dominant when cultures clash and cultural priorities might not be recognised, misunderstood, or ignored.

In many ways the dominance of English recently has led us all to become culturally homogeneous and if that continues then who could say that what we have lost and will lose isn't important.


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