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The little village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, birthplace and final resting place of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, is in the news today. But I have heard no one on the BBC's radio services who can even attempt to pronounce the name correctly. The IPA transcription is ['k!u:nu]. That initial consonant does not sound like [k] as in a word like kudu (the [k] in the transcription merely signifies that the consonant transcribed [!] is voiceless). It is a click consonant, produced by creating a suction effect above the tongue in the roof of the mouth and then pulling the tongue tip away from the ridge behind the upper front teeth so that air rushes in to make a dull "pop" like the sound of a champagne cork coming out. The lips are rounded to amplify the lower frequencies of the resultant click. It is not at all difficult to do: most people can imitate the popping of a champagne cork with their tongue. Putting it into a syllable like [k!u:] is not quite so easy. And after quite a bit of listening to BBC reporters and newscasters during this week of farewell for the great Nelson Mandela, I have heard no one even attempt it.

A more accurate version of the IPA transcription would have a superscript arch [͡  ] over the [k!] part to signify that the two symbols function together to represent a single phonetic segment, not two consecutive segments. But I have not found a way to get Language Log's software to display the superimposed arch correctly: neither ['͡k!u:nu] nor ['k͡!u:nu] nor [' ͡k! u:nu] looks right on my machine, using Firefox, Chrome, or Safari (though your mileage may differ). Somehow, though, the Wikipedia page for Qunu shows the transcription very nicely as viewed on my Mac. Wikipedia also has a general article on the Xhosa language.

Karen Carlson has pointed out to me a recent BBC article on pronunciation of South African names. It actually recommends an anglicization that replaces Qunu by Kunu (IPA [ku:nu]), assuming that no BBC announcer could master [k!]. It also says that Xhosa is "pronounced KAW-suh (-k as in king, -aw as in law, -uh as "a" in sofa, stressed syllables shown in upper case)." It certainly is not: the "Xh" is another click, but a different one (the IPA is ['kǁhosa], except that again, ideally there should be a superscript arch over the [kǁ] part). The letters q, x, and c all spell clicks in Xhosa and Zulu. Xh spells an aspirated click: a voiceless click consonant with a puff of [h]-like air following it.

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