December 30, 2003

How to call Cquila's name

It almost seems like every new African American female of college age or younger that you meet these days has a completely unique invented name. The New York Times on Saturday, December 27, 2003, carried an article by Leslie Kaufman about changes in what is provided to the poor in food baskets. It was illustrated with a photo of a six-year-old girl named Cquila Singleton. Cquila is definitely unique, getting no Google hits at all as of today. (By tomorrow there may be one hit, but it will be this page.) And one can only guess at the intended pronunciation.

The invented names that black mothers bestow on their daughters are often rather beautiful phonetically, and generally fashioned to look and sound vaguely African. In the case of Cquila there is a distinct suggestion of the orthographies of Southern Bantu languages like Zulu. But in those orthographies Cquila would be the spelling of something completely unpronounceable. The letters c, q, and x are used for velaric ingressive stop consonants -- clicks, as they are more usually known. Roughly speaking, c stands for a dental click made by sucking the tongue tip away from the back of the upper front teeth); q represents a deeper-sounding postalveolar click performed with rounded lip position and tongue pulled away from the front of the roof of the mouth (people use it to imitate the sound of a champagne cork coming out of the bottle), and x stands for the lateral one (a clicking at the two sides of the tongue used conventionally to gee up horses). The latter occurs in the name of the language Xhosa; Peter Ladefoged has examples of the clicks in this language here, and lots of other fascinating material on the same site.

The click in Xhosa is apirated, which means it is immediately followed by an h sound. But you can hardly follow a click by a click. It never happens in the Southern African languages that have clicks, any way (though Julian Bradfield points out that the earlier version of this post was too strong: producing two clicks in quick succession is phonetically possible); cq couldn't ever be the beginning of a well-formed Zulu or Xhosa word.

It is possible for a dental click to be immediately followed by a uvular stop (like the last sound in the word Iraq when correctly pronounced). That happens in certain Bushman languages spoken in the Kalahari desert area, such as !Kung, as heard in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. But for those the usual spelling (invented by German missionaries) has the slash / for the dental click, the exclamation mark for the postalveolar one, and two slashes for the lateral one. In more recent proposals a k is prefixed to a voiceless click (and g for a voiced one and n for a nasal one). The (imaginary) word k/quila would be pronounceable in a Bushman language. But it's probably not the intended pronunciation of Cquila's name.

There are words ending in cq in at least some Romance languages, English gets a few of them in the form of foreign proper names like Domecq (the family name of Pedro Domecq, from Spain). But I don't think there are any languages in which words can begin with cq.

Except for post-1997 English, of course, if you count the name Cquila as an English word. Little Cquila (she is six) will have to tell everyone how she wants her name to be pronounced, because I can't even guess. People will probably make attempts sounding like keela, queela, ka-queela, sa-queela... She may end up being nicknamed Tequila. You don't know what you've started when you invent a name whose spelling doesn't indicate a pronunciation in any known human language.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 30, 2003 03:04 PM