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San language

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San language

"San language" redirects here. For the Mande language spoken in Burkina Faso, see Samo language (Burkina).
Kalahari Desert, central Tanzania
Linguistic classification: (term of convenience)
ISO 639-2 / 5: khi

Map showing the distribution of the Khoisan languages (yellow)

The Khoisan languages (also Khoesan or Khoesaan) are the languages of Africa that have click consonants but do not belong to other language families. For much of the 20th century they were thought to have a genealogical relationship with each other, but this is no longer accepted.

All Khoisan languages but two are indigenous to southern Africa, and belong to three language families, of which the Khoi family appears to have migrated to southern Africa not long before the Bantu expansion.[1] Ethnically, their speakers are the Khoi and Bushmen (Saan). Two languages of east Africa, those of the Sandawe and Hadza, are also called Khoisan, though their speakers are ethnically neither Khoe nor Saan.

Before the Bantu expansion, Khoisan languages, or languages like them, were likely 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 Khoekhoe ("Nàmá") of Namibia, with a quarter of a million speakers; Sandawe in Tanzania is second in number with some 40–80,000, some monolingual; and the !Kung language of the northern Kalahari is spoken by some 15,000 or so people. Language use is quite strong among the 20,000 speakers of Naro, half of whom speak it as a second language.

Khoisan languages are best known for their use of click consonants as phonemes. These are typically written with letters such as ǃ and ǂ. Clicks are quite versatile as consonants, as they involve two articulations of the tongue which can operate partially independently. Consequently, the languages with the greatest numbers of consonants in the world are Khoisan. The Juǀʼhoan language has 48 click consonants, among nearly as many non-click consonants, strident and pharyngealized vowels, and four tones. The ǃXóõ and ǂHõã languages are even more complex.

Grammatically, the southern Khoisan languages are generally fairly analytic, having several inflectional morphemes, yet not as many as in the languages of Tanzania for example.


Khoisan was proposed as one of the four families of African languages in Greenberg's classification (1949–1954, revised in 1963). However, linguists who study Khoisan languages reject 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 Kx'a 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). Starostin (2013) accepts a relationship between Sandawe and Khoi is plausible, as is one between Tuu and Kx'a, but that there is no indication of a relationship between these two groups or with Hadza.


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.


Main article: Hadza language

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.


Main article: Sandawe language

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


Main article: Khoe languages

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 Kwadi 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 Khoisanists.

  • ? Kwadi–Khoe
    • Kwadi (extinct)
    • Khoe
      • Khoekhoe This branch appears to have been affected by the Juu–Tuu sprachbund.
        • Nama (ethnonyms Khoekhoen, Nama, Damara) (a dialect cluster including ǂAakhoe and Haiǁom)
        • Eini (extinct)
        • South Khoekhoe
          • Korana (moribund)
          • Xiri (moribund; a dialect cluster)
      • Tshu–Khwe (or Kalahari) Many of these languages have undergone partial click loss.
        • East Tshu–Khwe (East Kalahari)
          • Shua (a dialect cluster including Deti, Tsʼixa, ǀXaise, and Ganádi)
          • Tsoa (a dialect cluster including Cire Cire and Kua)
        • West Tshu–Khwe (West Kalahari)
          • Kxoe (a dialect cluster including ǁAni and Buga)
          • Naro (a dialect cluster)
          • Gǁana–Gǀwi (a dialect cluster including Gǁana, Gǀwi, and maybe 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.


Main article: Tuu languages

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 Kx'a languages (below), but have not been demonstrated to be related to them genealogically. (The similarities may be an areal feature).

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


Main article: Kx'a languages

The Kx'a family is a distant relationship formally proposed in 2010.

  • Kx'a
    • ǂHoan (200 speakers, Botswana. Moribund.)
    • ǃKung (also ǃXun or Ju, formerly Northern Khoisan) is a single dialect cluster. (~45,000 speakers.) Well known dialects are ǃʼOǃKung, Juǀʼhoan, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein.

Other "click languages"

Not all languages using clicks as phonemes are considered Khoisan. Most others are neighboring Bantu languages in southern Africa: the Nguni languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Phuthi, and Northern Ndebele); Sotho; Yeyi in Botswana; and Mbukushu, Kwangali, and Gciriku in the Caprivi Strip. Clicks are spreading to a few additional neighboring languages. Of these languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele 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 (or from other Bantu languages), 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.

These are the only languages known to have clicks in normal vocabulary. Occasionally other languages are said to have "click" sounds. This is usually a misnomer for ejective consonants, which are found across much of the world, or is a reference to paralinguistic use of clicks such as English tsk! tsk!.



  • 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 Publishers)
  • 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. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • 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.
  • Schladt, Mathias (editor). 1998. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Mother Tongue 8 (2003), 81-126.)
  • Starostin, George. 2008. "From modern Khoisan languages to Proto-Khoisan: The Value of Intermediate Reconstructions." (Originally published in Aspects of Comparative Linguistics 3 (2008), 337-470, Moscow: RSUH Publishers.)
  • Starostin, George. 2013. Languages of Africa: An attempt at a lexicostatistical classification. Volume I: Methodology. Khoesan Languages. Moscow.
  • 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

  • Map showing distribution of San languages and pronunciation of "clicks" at the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA)
  • by Jouni Filip Maho
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