Khoisan Language Family

The Khoisan (Khoesan) language family is the smallest of the language families of Africa. The name Khoisan derives from the name of the Khoe-Khoe (also known as the Hottentot) group of South Africa and the San (Bushmen) group of Namibia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Khoisan people appeared in southern Africa some 60,000 years ago. Thus, the Khoisan languages may well be among the most ancient of all human tongues. These languages were used by several ethnic groups who originally inhabited southern Africa before the Bantu migrations southward and later European colonization in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries which led to the eventual decline of most and the death of some of these ancient languages. Even though the Khoisan languages show similarities in their sound systems, their grammatical systems are quite unique. In the absence of historical records, it is difficult to determine their genetic relationship to each other and to other African languages. It is fair to mapsay that of all the language families of the world, the Khoisan languages are among the least studied.

The most distinctive linguistic characteristic of Khoisan languages is the use of click consonants, which have been adopted by a number of neighboring Bantu languages, such as Xhosa and Zulu in South Africa.

Today, the Khoisan languages are spoken only in southwestern Africa, in the region around the Kalahari Desert extending from Angola to South Africa, and in one small area of Tanzania. The Hadza and Sandawe languages in Tanzania are generally classified as belonging to the Khoisan language family, but they are extremely distant geographically and linguistically from the other Khoisan languages.

Some scholars divide Khoisan languages into three groups consisting of mutually intelligible languages. There is little intelligibility between the North and the South Khoisan groups.

  • North Khoisan
  • South Khoisan
  • Central Khoisan

Ethnologue lists 27 Khoisan languages, many of them with only a few speakers left. The table below lists 13 Khoisan languages with populations of 1,000 and over:

Language
# of speakers
Where primarily spoken
Sandawe 40,000 Tanzania
Hai||om (San) 16,000 Namibia
Nama (Khoekhoegowab) 233,701 Namibia, Botswana, South Africa
Shua 6,000 Botswana
Tsoa 5,000 Botswana
||Ani 1,000 Botswana
Gana 2,000 Botswana
Kxoe 10,000 Namibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia
|Gwi 2,500 Botswana
Naro 14,000 Botswana, Namibia
ǂKx’au||’ein 2,000 Namibia, Botswana
Kung-Ekoka 6,900 Botswana, Angola, South Africa
Ju|’hoan 5,000 Botswana, Namibia
Maligo 2,200 Angola

Status
Of all the Khoisan languages, only Nama enjoys official recognition. It is a national of Namibia, along with English and a number of other regional languages. Nama is used in education and in the media.

The Khoisan languages are becoming increasingly endangered. Few of them have more than 1,000 speakers, and the number of speakers is fast diminishing. Several are known to have become extinct. Unfortunately, many of these languages have left behind no written records, so their loss is permanent. One of the main reasons is that bilingual Khoisan speakers shift to the dominant language of the area and stop teaching the language to their children. There are some exceptions, for instance, the Sandawe language in Tanzania whose speakers have maintained a relatively stable linguistic community.

Dialects

Structure

Sound system
The sound system of Nama is characterized by an abundance of click consonants. The origin of clicks remain a mystery, even though some scholars speculate that they might represent an earlier stage in the evolution of human language. According to this hypothesis, clicks might have originally served as onomatopoetic imitations of naturally occurring sounds. However, there is no scientific proof to support this hypothesis since all languages use sound symbolism to a lesser or greater extent.

The Khoisan languages share some similarities in their extremely complex sound systems. All click and most non-click consonants appear at the beginning of words and are followed by a vowel. Only a few consonants, such as /b/, /m/, /n/, /r/, and /l/ can appear between vowels, and even fewer can appear at the end of words.

Vowels
Many of the Khoisan languages have five vowel phonemes /i/, /e/, /a/, /o/, /u/ which can be produced with additional features, such as nasalization, pharyngealization, and different voice qualities such as breathy and creaky voice, sometimes resulting in up to 40 different vowels.

Consonants
In addition to click consonants, the Khoisan languages use a large number of other consonants, up to a total of 90 consonants in ǀGwi.

Click consonants
Clicks are stops produced with two points of contact in the mouth: one forward and one in the back. The pocket of air produced by the resulting enclosure is rarefied by the sucking action of the tongue. Release of the forward closure results in a pop-like sound. There are several places of articulation at which click consonants occur, as presented in the table below. Click consonants can be modified in a variety of ways. For instance, they can be aspirated, nasalized and glottalized. The Khoisan languages differ in the number of such modifications from a low of 20 in Nama to a high of 83 in Kxoe. Southern Khoisan languages have a very high ratio of words containing clicks as compared to those that do not contain them.

Types of clicks
Symbol
Description
ʘ
A bilabial click is a pop made by bringing the lips together and releasing them, just like the sound of a kiss.
ǀ
A dental click sounds like ‘tsk, tsk! ‘ and is made by putting the tongue just behind the front teeth.
!
An alveolar click sounds like the popping of a cork made by putting the tongue just behind the ridge in back of the front teeth.
ǁ
A lateral click sounds like the sound used in English to urge on a horse.
ǂ
A palatal click is a sharp pop made by drawing the tongue down quickly from the roof of the mouth.

Tones
Khoisan languages feature several tones. For instance, Juǀ’hoan has four level and one rising tone. Nama has four tones: high, low, rising, and falling.

Grammar
The grammatical systems of Khoisan languages differ considerably, not just between the branches, but also within the branches themselves.

Nouns

  • Most Khoisan nouns belong to three genders: masculine, feminine, and common. In Kxoe, for example, genders in inanimate nouns are also associated with shape, e.g., masculine is associated with long, narrow
  • nb ort, broad, round objects. Different endings are assigned to different genders, e.g., in Nama language, khoe-b means ‘man’ while khoe-s imeans ‘woman.’
  • There are three numbers: singular, and plural. They are controlled by noun gender.

Verbs
A grammatical feature common to many of the Khoisan languages is the use of verb compounds, e.g., the equivalent of English enter would be something likego+enter.

Word order
The usual word order is either Subject-Verb-Object, or Subject-Object-Verb, depending on the language.

Vocabulary
The vocabulary of Khoisan languages is a reflection of their life-styles. Since the speakers of these languages live in close contact with nature, they have a very refined vocabulary related to hunting, animals, plants, and various types of terrain.

Below are some common words in several Khoisan languages. Note the special symbols for clicks (see table above under sound system); accent marks represent tones, tilde represents nasalization, and macron represents consonant length.

Sandawe Hadza Khoe Ju|’hoan !Xóõ
person
ǀnomese
‘únù
khoe
ʒú
tâa
man
ǀnomese
ǂeme
k’ákhoe
!hõá
tâa áa
child
ǁnoó
wa’a
lűá
dama
ʘàa
ear
kéké
ɦatʃ‘pitʃ‘i
ǂée
ǀhúí
ǂnùhã
eye
ǀgweé
‘ákhwa
ǂxái
ǀgà’á
!ûĩ
ostrich
sa’útà
kénàngu
ǀgáro
dsùú
qûje
giraffe
ts’ámasu
ts’okwàna
!nábe
ǂoah
ǁqhūũ
buffalo
leu
nák’óma
lâo
làò
lqhái
to hear
khé’é
ǁná’e
kúm
ts’à’á
táa
to drink
ts’ee
kx’âa
tʃìi
kx’āhã

Writing

Most of the languages are unwritten, but Nama and Naro have Latin-based orthographies. Nama, in particular, has a long tradition of literacy.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Khoisan languages?
There is no data on the difficulty of Khoisan languages for speakers of English.