Back-released velar click
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A velar click, or more precisely a back-released velar click, is any of a family of click consonants found in paralinguistic use in several languages of Africa such as Wolof. The tongue is in a similar position to other click articulations, such as an alveolar click, and like other clicks, the airstream mechanism is lingual. However, unlike other clicks, the salient sound is produced by releasing the rear (probably velar) closure of the tongue rather than the front closure. Consequently, the air that fills the vacuum comes from behind the tongue, from the nasal cavity or the throat.
IPA symbol withdrawn
In 1949, International Phonetic Association (IPA) recommended the symbol ⟨ʞ⟩, a turned kay, for clicks at this place of articulation. At the time, little was known about the articulation of clicks, and velar clicks were a purely hypothetical sound. The IPA later judged them to be impossible, and withdrew the symbol 1979. The reasoning was that a click could not be produced in which both the front and rear closures occurred at the back of the tongue. (The rear articulation of all clicks is velar or uvular, and the families of dental, alveolar, palatal, and bilabial clicks are defined by the front closure.)
"A click is produced by creating a velar closure simultaneously with a more anterior closure, creating suction between the two by sliding back the velar closure, and then releasing the anterior closure to create the click. The two closures must be separated by at least a centimeter or two, so a velar clicks is a contradiction in terms. [Hence] the symbol could never be validly used.
Indeed, no language is known in which a velar release of the tongue triggers an influx of air from the front of the mouth. However, in languages such as Wolof, velar clicks are possible because the release sequence is reversed: there is a centimeter or two of separation between the front and rear closures of the tongue, and it is the rear (velar) rather than front closure that is released to produce the sound.
Lionnet describes the clicks as follows:
Like any other click, [ʞ] is produced with an ingressive lingual (velaric) airstream: the oral cavity is closed in two places: at the velum and at the front of the mouth. Air rarefaction in the intra-oral cavity is achieved mostly through tongue body lowering. However, instead of the front closure, the velar closure is released, allowing air to rush into the mouth from the back, either from the nasal cavity or from the post-velar cavity if the velo-pharyngeal port is closed.
Velar clicks are produced with closed lips in those languages known to have them. For this reason, it was at first thought that the front articulation was labial:
This click uses the ingressive airstream mechanism, just like regular clicks. The oral cavity is closed in two places: the lips and the palate or the velum. The tongue acts as a piston, with the only difference from velaric ingressive [i.e. other] clicks being the path through which air flows into the oral cavity: in clicks produced with the mouth open the air flows in through the mouth, and in this click it flows in through the nasal cavity.
However, the labial closure does not appear to be distinctive. Although articulatory measurements have not been done, it appears that the two relevant articulations are dorsal and coronal: The rear articulation appears to be at the very front of the velum, near the hard palate (at least in Wolof and Laal), and the front articulation is dental or alveolar. The lips are closed merely because that is their rest position; opening the lips has no effect on the consonant. That is, the setup of a velar click is very much like one of the coronal clicks, [ǀ, ǂ, ǃ], but with the roles of the two closures of the tongue reversed.
In Mundang and Kanuri, the rear articulation is said to be uvular and back-velar rather than front-velar. Comparisons between the languages have yet to be done.
Velar clicks are attested from a number of languages in west and central Africa, from Senegal in the west to northern Cameroon and southern Chad in the east. The literature reports at least Laal, Mambay, Mundang, and Kanuri in the east, and Wolof and Mauritanian Pulaar in the west.
In Wolof, a back-released velar click is in free variation with a lateral click or an alveolar click. It means 'yes' when used once, and 'I see' or 'I get it' when repeated. It's also used for back-channeling. In Laal as well, it is used for "strong agreement" and back-channeling, and is in free variation with the lateral click. It appears to have the same two functions in the other languages.
- Alveolar clicks
- Bilabial clicks
- Dental clicks
- Lateral clicks
- Palatal clicks
- Retroflex clicks
- Index of phonetics articles
- Lenore Grenoble (2014) "Verbal gestures: Toward a field-based approach to language description". In Plungian et al. (eds.), Language. Constants. Variables: In memory of A. E. Kibrik, 105–118. Aleteija: Saint Petersburg.
- Grenoble, Martinovic, & Baglini (2015) "Verbal gestures in Wolof". Proceedings of the 44th Annual Conference on African Linguistics. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
- Pullum & Ladusaw (2013) Phonetic Symbol Guide, University of Chicago Press.
- Florian Lionnet (f.c.) "Paralinguistic use of clicks in Chad"