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The adoption and proliferation of clicks in Bantu languages: the role of <i>hlonipha</i> revisited

Hilde Gunnink


While the use of clicks in certain Southern Bantu languages is recognisable as the result of contact with speakers of Khoisan languages, the occurrence of clicks in inherited Bantu lexemes defies a contact explanation. In this article, I review earlier proposals that link click insertion to the practice of hlonipha, which forbids married women from pronouncing the names of their male in-laws, as well as words comprising similar syllables. Making use of a database of attested hlonipha substitute words, I show that the frequency and phonological details of click insertion to create hlonipha substitutes cannot account fully for the proliferation of clicks to formerly clickless vocabulary. Furthermore, I compare click insertion in South-Eastern Bantu click languages, where the practice of hlonipha is known, to South-Western Bantu click languages, where clicks also occur in formerly clickless lexemes, but whose speakers do not practice in-law avoidance. I also compare hlonipha to other African systems of in-law avoidance, which are remarkably similar in their physical and linguistic properties, yet do not make extensive use of consonant replacement to create taboo alternatives. Therefore, the adoption and proliferation of clicks in Bantu languages is unlikely to have resulted from hlonipha alone, and other factors, such as identity marking and sound symbolism, should also be considered.

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eISSN: 2305-1159
print ISSN: 0257-2117