Xhosa language

Xhosa Language

Bhota – Hello

Xhosa (isiXhosa) is the southernmost member of the Bantoid group of the Niger-Congo language family in Africa. It is closely related to Zulu, Swati, and Ndebele. Although mutually intelligible, they are considered to be separate languages for political and cultural reasons.

The Xhosa, formerly called Kaffir or Kafir (Arabic for ‘infidel’), are a cluster of related peoples who have inhabited Eastern Cape Province and Transkei, South Africa, since before the 16th century. They are thought to have migrated to this region along the east coast of Africa and through central Africa. In southern Africa, they came into contact with Khoisan-speaking people. As a result of this contact, the Xhosa people borrowed some Khoisan words along with their pronunciation, for instance, the click sounds of the Khoisan languages.



Xhosa is spoken as a first language by 8.2 million people and by 11 million as a second language in South Africa, mostly in Eastern Cape Province and Transkei. Total number of users in all countries is 19.2 million (Ethnologue). It is also spoken in Botswana and Lesotho. It is one of the eleven official languages of the Republic of South Africa. The status of Xhosa, like all other African languages in the Republic of South Africa, is complex. Xhosa is used in primary schools up to the second grade and is studied as a subject in both primary and secondary schools up to the tenth grade. At the secondary level, instruction in schools serving Xhosa-speaking students is in English. All education at the university level is in English or Afrikaans. The Xhosa themselves are somewhat ambivalent about the use of their language in education. Some support the use of English and see its use in education as de facto segregation. Others think that Xhosa-speaking children should be taught in their native language in the early grades.

Several radio stations and one TV station broadcast in Xhosa. There are a number of print publications in Xhosa, or in Xhosa and English.



Xhosa has several dialects, including Mpondo (Pondo), Xesibe, Bomwana, Gaika, Gcaleka, Thembu, Mpondomise, Ndlambe (Ethnologue). Ngqika is considered to be the standard variety.



Sound system

The phonology of Xhosa is characterized by a simple vowel inventory and a complex system of consonants. Most syllables end in a vowel, and there are no consonant clusters.



There are five vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that distinguish word meaning. Vowels can be either short or long. Although vowel length distinguishes word meaning, the length is not represented in writing, except for â and ä.

i , ii
u, uu
ε, εε
ɔ, ɔɔ
a, aa



Xhosa has a complex system of consonants, including some uncommon ones.

1. Clicks
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 five places of articulation at which click consonants occur. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, clicks are represented by placing the assigned symbol for the place of click articulation to the left of a symbol for a nonclick sound at the same place of articulation.

Xhosa has the following clicks consonants which can be modified in a variety of ways, such as aspirated, breathy-voiced or nasalized.

  • /kǀ/ = dental click
  • /kǁ/ = lateral alveolar click produced by the side of the tongue against the back of the side teeth (similar to the sound made when calling horses in English. In fact, the name Xhosa is pronounced as /’kǁʰ o:sa/.
  • /kǃ/ = (post)alveolar click produced with the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth (like a cork pulled from a bottle).


2. Implosive consonants
Implosive consonants are produced by inhaling rather than exhaling the air.

3. Breathy-voiced consonants
Breathy-voiced consonants are produced when the vocal cords vibrate, as they do in normal voicing, but are held further apart, so that a volume of air escapes between them. This produces an audible noise. They are marked with a raised /ʱ/.

4. Ejective consonants
Ejective consonants are pronounced with simultaneous closure of the glottis, raising air pressure in the mouth, so when the sound is released, there is a noticeable burst of air accompanying the release. They are marked with an apostrophe /’/.

Below is a table of Xhosa consonants. The red letters are orthographic representations of the sounds. The inventory is taken from Wikipedia.

Clicks voiceless plain
voiceless aspirated
kǀʰ (ch)
kǁʰ (xh)
kǃʰ (qh)
voiced breathy
gǀʱ (gc)
ʱ (gx)
g!ʱ (gq)
voiced nasalized
ŋǀ (nc)
ŋǁ (nx)
ŋ! (nq)
voiced breathy nasalized
ŋǀʱ (ngc)
ŋǁʱ (ngx)
ŋ!ʱ (ngq)
Stops voiceless ejective
p’ (p)
t’ (t)
k’ (k)
voiceless aspirated
tʰ (th)
cʰ (tyh)
voiced breathy
ɓ (b)
Fricatives voiceless
f (f)
s (s)
ɬ (hl)
ʃ (sh)
x (rh)
h (h)
voiced breathy
zʱ (z)
ɮ (dl)
ɣ̈ (gr)
Affricates voiceless ejective
ts’ (ts)
tʃ‘ (tsh)
kx’ (kr)
voiceless aspirated
ʧʰ (thsh)
voiced breathy
ʤʱ (j)
Nasals voiced plain
m (m)
n (n)
ɲ (ny)
ŋ (n’)
voiced breathy
Approximants voiced
w (w)
l (l)
y (y)
voiced breathy
( wh)
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /tʃ/ = ch in chop
  • /c, ɟ, ɬ, ɮ, x, ɦ, ɣ̈/ have no equivalents in English



Xhosa has two tones: high and low.



Xhosa is an agglutinative language that expresses grammatical functions by adding prefixes and suffixes to roots.



  • Xhosa nouns belong to 17 different classes, roughly based on semantic categories, e.g., there are classes for human beings, animals, plants, objects of various shapes, etc. However, not all noun classes can be so easily defined.
  • Marking of the plural number depends on the noun class. For example, umntu ‘person’ and abantupeople,’ umama ‘mother’ and oomama ‘mothers.’
  • There are no cases.
  • There are no definite or indefinite articles.
  • Gender is not marked.
  • Adjectives, possessive pronouns and demonstratives agree with the noun they modify in class and number.



Xhosa verbs are highly inflected. The chart below (taken from Some elements of the structure of the Xhosa verb) shows some of the possible slots for prefixes and suffixes. The verb root occupies the 0 position. The rest of the elements are placed to the left or to the right of the verb root.

Subject marker
Object marker
Verb root
Causative marker
Reciprocal marker


As an example, the composition of the verb In the sentence Un-ntwana u-ya-wa-sel-a ama-nzi ‘One child drinks water’ is shown below.

One child
subject marker
present tense
object marker


Word order

The normal word order in Xhosa is Verb-Object (the subject is part of the verb compound). Adjectives, possessive pronouns and demonstratives come after the noun they modify.



Xhosa, Zulu, Ndelebele and Swati share most of their basic vocabulary as well as grammar. Thus, the word for ‘people’ is abantu in all these languages. Like other Southern Bantu languages, Xhosa has borrowed words from the Khoisan languages, as well as from English and Afrikaans. 15% of its vocabulary is estimated to be of Khoekhoe (Khoisan) origin.

Below are some common words and sentences in Xhosa.

Hello. Bhota.
Good bye. Hamba kakuhle (to the person leaving), sala kakuhle (to the person staying).
Please. Nceda.
Thank you. Ndiyabulela, enkosi..
Excuse me Uxolo
Yes. Ewe.
No. Hayi.
Mother Umama
Father Utata
Child Umntwana


Below are Xhosa numerals 1-10.





Ever since Xhosa and Zulu were reduced to a written form in the early 19th century, Xhosa and Zulu writers have produced various works of fiction, ranging from poetry to novels.

Xhosa has a Roman-based orthography which was developed by missionaries in the 19th century and adapted to represent the sounds of the language. Dental clicks are represented by the letter c, alveolar clicks are indicated by q, and lateral clicks are written with the letter x. Vowel length is not always represented in writing. High tone is represented in writing by an acute accent over the vowel, i.g., á, low tone is indicated by by a grave accent, i.g., à. However, tones are usually not indicated in writing.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Xhosa.

Inqaku loku-1
Bonke abantu bazalwa bekhululekile belingana ngesidima nangokweemfanelo. Bonke abantu banesiphiwo sesazela nesizathu sokwenza isenzo ongathanda ukuba senziwe kumzalwane wakho.
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.



Did You Know?

Xhosa, along with Zulu and other indigenous languages of South Africa, has been a source of many words that were borrowed by South African English and that do not occur in other varieties of English in other parts of the world. Here are a few of these words

ubuntu from Xhosa, Zulu ubuntu ‘kindness’
donga ‘ditch’ from Xhosa indonga ‘river bank’
indaba conference’ from Xhosa, iindaba ‘news, media’



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Xhosa?
Xhosa is considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.