Khoisan languages: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kalahari Desert, central Tanzania
Khoisan (term of convenience)
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: khi
Map showing the distribution of the Khoi-San languages (yellow)

The Khoisan languages (also known as the Khoesan or Khoesaan languages) are the click languages of Africa, which do not belong to other language families. They include languages indigenous to southern and eastern Africa, though some, such as the Khoi languages, appear to have moved to their current locations not long before the Bantu expansion.[1] In southern Africa their speakers are the Khoi and Bushmen (Saan), in east Africa the Sandawe and Hadza. Many people were exposed to a Khoisan language through the actor Nǃxau in the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Prior to the Bantu expansion, it is likely that Khoisan languages, or languages like them, were spread throughout southern and eastern Africa. They are currently restricted to the Kalahari Desert, primarily in Namibia and Botswana, and to the Rift Valley in central Tanzania.[2]

Most of the languages are endangered, and several are moribund or extinct. Most have no written record. The only widespread Khoisan language is Nama of Namibia, with a quarter of a million speakers; Sandawe in Tanzania is second in number with about 40,000, some monolingual; and the Juu language cluster of the northern Kalahari is spoken by some 30,000 people.

Khoisan languages are best known for their use of click consonants as phonemes. These are typically written with letters such as ǃ and ǂ. The Juǀʼhoan language has some 30 click consonants, not counting clusters, among perhaps 90 phonemes, which include strident and pharyngealized vowels and four tones. The ǃXóõ and ǂHõã languages are similarly complex.

Grammatically, the southern Khoisan languages are generally fairly isolating, with word order being more widely used to indicate grammatical relations than is inflection. By contrast, the languages of Tanzania have large numbers of inflectional suffixes.



Khoisan was proposed as one of the four families of African languages in Greenberg's classification (1949-1954, revised in 1963). However, few linguists who now study Khoisan languages accept their unity, and the name "Khoisan" is used by them as a term of convenience without any implication of linguistic validity, much as "Papuan" and "Australian" are.[3][4] It has been suggested that the similarities of the Tuu and Juu (or Juu-ǂHoan) families are due to a southern African Sprachbund rather than a genealogical relationship, whereas the Khoe (or perhaps Kwadi-Khoe) family is a more recent migrant to the area, and may be related to Sandawe in East Africa.[1]

E.O.J. Westphal is known for his early rejection of the Khoisan language family (Starostin 2003). Bonny Sands (1998) concluded that the family is not demonstrable with current evidence. Anthony Traill at first accepted Khoisan (Traill 1986), but by 1998 concluded that it could not be demonstrated with current data and methods, rejecting it as based on a single-criterion typology: the presence of clicks.[5] Dimmendaal (2008) summarized the general view with, "it has to be concluded that Greenberg’s intuitions on the genetic unity of Khoisan could not be confirmed by subsequent research. Today, the few scholars working on these languages treat the three [southern groups] as independent language families that cannot or can no longer be shown to be genetically related" (p. 841). Linguists who continue to accept Khoisan include Christopher Ehret (1986, 2003), Henry Honken (1988, 1998), and George Starostin (2003, 2008).


The putative branches of Khoisan are often considered independent families, in the absence of a demonstration that they are related according to the standard comparative method.

See Khoe languages for speculations on the linguistic history of the region.



With about 800 speakers in Tanzania, Hadza appears to be unrelated to any other language; genetically, the Hadza people are unrelated to the Khoisan peoples of Southern Africa, and their closest relatives may be among the Pygmies of Central Africa.


There is some indication that Sandawe (about 40,000 speakers in Tanzania) may be related to the Khoe-Kwadi family, such as a congruent pronominal system and some good Swadesh-list matches, but not enough to establish regular sound correspondences. The Sandawe are not related to the Hadza, despite their proximity.


The Khoe family is both the most numerous and diverse family of Khoisan languages, with seven living languages and over a quarter million speakers. Although little data is available, proto-Kwadi-Khoe reconstructions have been made for pronouns and some basic vocabulary. However, the Kwadi connection is not accepted by all Khoesanists.

  • ? Kwadi-Khoe
    • Kwadi. Extinct, Angola.
    • Khoe
      • Khoekhoe This branch appears to have been affected by the Juu-Tuu sprachbund.
        • Nama (270,000 speakers. Ethnonyms Khoekhoen, Nama, Damara. A dialect cluster including ǂAakhoe and Haiǁom)
        • Eini (Extinct.)
        • South Khoekhoe
          • Korana (6+ speakers. Moribund.)
          • Xiri (90 speakers. Moribund. A dialect cluster.)
      • Tshu-Khwe (or Kalahari) Many of these languages have undergone partial click loss.
        • East Tshu-Khwe (East Kalahari)
          • Shua (6000 speakers. A dialect cluster including Deti, Tsʼixa, ǀXaise, and Ganádi)
          • Tsoa (7300 speakers. A dialect cluster including Cire Cire and Kua)
        • West Tshu-Khwe (West Kalahari)
          • Kxoe (9000 speakers. A dialect cluster including ǁAni and Buga)
          • Naro (14,000 speakers. A dialect cluster.)
          • Gǁana-Gǀwi (4500 speakers. A dialect cluster including Gǁana, Gǀwi, and ǂHaba)

A Haiǁom language is listed in most Khoisan references. A century ago the Haiǁom people spoke a Ju dialect, probably close to ǃKung, but they now speak a divergent dialect of Nama. Thus their language is variously said to be extinct or to have 18,000 speakers, to be Ju or to be Khoe. (Their numbers have been included under Nama above.) They are known as the Saa by the Nama, and this is the source of the word San.


The Tuu family consists of two language clusters, which are related to each other at about the distance of Khoekhoe and Tshukhwe within Khoe. They are typologically very similar to the Juu languages (below), but have not been demonstrated to be related to them genealogically. (The similarities may be an areal feature.)

  • Tuu
    • Taa
      • ǃXóõ (4200 speakers. A dialect cluster.)
      • Lower Nossob (Two dialects, ǀʼAuni and ǀHaasi. Extinct.)
    • ǃKwi
      • Nǁng (A dialect cluster. Moribund, with 8 Nǀu speakers.)
      • ǀXam (A dialect cluster. Extinct.)
      • ǂUngkue (A dialect cluster. Extinct.)
      • ǁXegwi (Extinct.)


The Juu-ǂHoan family is a distant relationship, only recently proposed, that is being increasingly accepted.

Other "Click Languages"

Not all languages using clicks as phonemes are considered Khoisan. Most are neighboring Bantu languages in southern Africa: the Nguni languages Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Phuthi, and Ndebele; Sotho; Yeyi in Botswana; and Mbukushu, Kwangali, and Gciriku in the Caprivi Strip. Of these, Xhosa, Zulu, and Yeyi have intricate systems of click consonants; the others, despite the click in the name Gciriku, more rudimentary ones. There is also the South Cushitic language Dahalo in Kenya, which has dental clicks in a few score words, and an extinct northern Australian ritual language called Damin, which had only nasal clicks.

The Bantu languages adopted the use of clicks from neighboring, displaced, or absorbed Khoisan populations, often through intermarriage, while the Dahalo are thought to have retained clicks from an earlier language when they shifted to speaking a Cushitic language; if so, the pre-Dahalo language may have been something like Hadza or Sandawe. Damin is an invented ritual language, and has nothing to do with Khoisan.


  1. ^ a b Güldemann, Tom and Edward D. Elderkin (forthcoming) 'On external genealogical relationships of the Khoe family.' In Brenzinger, Matthias and Christa König (eds.), Khoisan languages and linguistics: the Riezlern symposium 2003. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung 17. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  2. ^ Barnard, A. (1988) 'Kinship, language and production: a conjectural history of Khoisan social structure', Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 58 (1), 29-50.
  3. ^ Bonny Sands (1998) Eastern and Southern African Khoisan: Evaluating Claims of Distant Linguistic Relationships. Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Cologne
  4. ^ Gerrit Dimmendaal (2008) "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent", in Language and Linguistics Compass 2/5
  5. ^ Linguistics 112 lecture, Department of Linguistics, University of the Witwatersrand, March 1998


  • Barnard, A. 1988. "Kinship, language and production: a conjectural history of Khoisan social structure." In Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 58.1, 29-50.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 1986. "Proposals on Khoisan reconstruction." In African Hunter-Gatherers (international symposium), edited by Franz Rottland & Rainer Vossen, 105-130. Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, special issue 7.1. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 2003. "Toward reconstructing Proto-South Khoisan." In Mother Tongue 8.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1955. Studies in African Linguistic Classification. New Haven: Compass Publishing Company. (Reprints, with minor corrections, a series of eight articles published in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology from 1949 to 1954.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. The Languages of Africa. (Heavily revised version of Greenberg 1955.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (From the same publisher: second, revised edition, 1966; third edition, 1970. All three editions simultaneously published at The Hague by Mouton & Co.)
  • Güldemann, Tom and Rainer Vossen. 2000. "Khoisan." In African Languages: An Introduction, edited by Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, 99-122. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hastings, Rachel. 2001. "Evidence for the genetic unity of Southern Khoesan." In Cornell Working Papers in Linguistics 18, 225-245.
  • Honken, Henry. 1988. "Phonetic correspondences among Khoisan affricates." In New Perspectives on the Study of Khoisan, edited by Rainer Vossen, 47-65. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung 7. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1988.
  • Honken, Henry. 1998. "Types of sound correspondence patterns in Khoisan languages." In Language, Identity and Conceptualization among the Khoisan, edited by Mathias Schladt, 171-193. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung/Research in Khoisan studies 15. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Köhler, O. 1971. "Die Khoe-sprachigen Buschmänner der Kalahari." In Forschungen zur allgemeinen und regionalen Geschichte (Festschrift Kurt Kayser), 373–411. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner.
  • Sands, Bonny. 1998. "Comparison and classification of Khoisan languages." In Language History and Linguistic Description in Africa, edited by Ian Maddieson and Thomas J. Hinnebusch, 75-85. Trenton: Africa World Press.
  • Traill, Anthony. 1986. "Do the Khoi have a place in the San? New data on Khoisan linguistic relationships." In African Hunter-gatherers (international symposium), Franz Rottland and Rainer Vossen, 407-430. Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, special issue 7.1. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.
  • Treis, Yvonne. 1998. "Names of Khoisan languages and their variants." In Language, Identity, and Conceptualization among the Khoisan, edited by Matthias Schladt. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe, 463–503.
  • Vossen, Rainer. 1997. Die Khoe-Sprachen. Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der Sprachgeschichte Afrikas. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Westphal, E.O.J. 1971. "The click languages of Southern and Eastern Africa." In Current Trends in Linguistics, Volume 7: Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by T.A. Sebeok. Berlin: Mouton, 367–420.
  • Winter, J.C. 1981. "Die Khoisan-Familie." In Die Sprachen Afrikas, edited by Bernd Heine, Thilo C. Schadeberg, and Ekkehard Wolff. Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 329–374.

External links


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address