Saturday, November 15, 2008

Miriam Makeba

The death of Miriam Makeba came as something as a surprise to me because I had no idea she was so old. I wasn't really aware of the politics, but I loved the voice. And I find click consonants fascinating. It's hard to understand why anyone would bother to invent them, so complicated do they seem. But of course, languages do not work like that.

Her native language was Xhosa, which has a number of such sounds, and she sang in it frequently. I am not the first to link to this song, but it is a good example of her voice, and her style, and of what clicks actually sound like.

They are really a feature of the Khoisan family, and some of them seem to have been borrowed by neighbouring, or not-so-neighbouring languages, mostly Bantu. So far, so reasonable. But on Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Leerdil used, until recently, a ceremonial language called Damin, which had a large number of click consonants of varying types. Leerdil also several different airstream mechanisms, which is, to saythe least, highly unusual. And it had an egressive bilabial click, a sound which is, I believe, unique in the world.

It is the existence of such things that reassures us that the world is more endlessly fascinating, inexplicable and uncontrollable than we may, in moments of gloom, come to believe. It is such things that seem to fill the lungs with air and the soul with light. There are things which seem to make us completely free, in spite of everything, and one such thing is human wonder.

RIP Miriam. Viva the wonderful.

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