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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:

# 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

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.



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.

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

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 aspiratednasalized 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
bilabial click is a pop made by bringing the lips together and releasing them, just like the sound of a kiss.
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.
lateral click sounds like the sound used in English to urge on a horse.
A palatal click is a sharp pop made by drawing the tongue down quickly from the roof of the mouth.

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.

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


  • 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.

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.

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
tâa áa
to hear
to drink


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


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

4 Responses to Khoisan Language Family

  1. Petr Jandacek

    My wife and I had visited your part of the world and I wish to do more research to write my THIRD paper to be published in Russia and Slovenia. 
    At one time I learnt that one of the SAN (Bushman) words for ELEPHANT was  Kła and another was  XO.  I had lost my sources for this information and I hope you can confirm this, and that I can use YOU as my authority for the quote/footnote.   Basically I am proposing that NOT ONLY Homo sapiens Genes but also the word for ELEPHANT came from your area.  Kindly observe that extant EURASIAN populations which are related to the Ust’Ishim and Mal’ta peoples of the past have SIMILAR WORDS FOR ELEPHANT. (Monosyllabic-Starts with a DENTAL S/Z – ends with a NASAL ŋ or n.
    Can you confirm SAN WORDS FOR ELEPHANT??  I will subsequently  (if I can learn from you) be ready to make reservations for your camp. 
    Why are the words for ELEPHANT 
        so similar across EURASIA ??
    (Keep in mind that S, Z, K, G, CH are interchangeable  as in Caesar, Kaiser, TZar, Císař, and Know & Gnostic. S andCH are interchangeable as in “CHinese is a Sino-Tibetan Language”) 

    Amharic (Horn of Africa)…….  ZehONa  (ዝሆን)
    fits into the EURASIAN mosaic of lexemes.
    Georgian ..Kartuli……………….. SP I’ LO   (სპილო)
    contains Semitic PIL as well as Slavic SLOn
    Some linguists speculate that Kartulian languages are the foundation of Semitic, Ural-Altaic and Indo-European language families.)
    Chinese …………………………..SeeAHNg    (sδaŋ)
    Hakka (south China) …………. SiONg        (sδoŋ)
    Tocharian  A …………….    onKaLAM
    Tocharian  B………………   onKoLMo   
     Tocharian words for ELEPHANT “onKOLMo” & “onKOLaM”may have been  derived  from  
    Tibetan GLAN or from Slavic OKEL / KEL = TUSK. 
    Latvian …………………….. …   ZiLONis
    Saami/Lapp …………………… SLONN
    Tibetan………………………….. GLAN  
    Slavic (MANY languages!)….. SLON       (слон)
    Polish (Slavic variant) ……….  S”u”ON           (Słon)            
    Mongol………………………….. ZaAN
    Japanese ……………………….. ZOsAN
    Laotian …………………………….SANg             (Saŋ)
    Thai ……………………………….CHANg         (Čaŋ)
    Roma…………….……………    SLONO
    Kalderaš………………woroSLANo, SLONo
    Additional evidence in words for tooth, tusk and ivory. 

    “ivory” in Korean (similar to the Laotian word for “Elephant”)
     ivory in Japanese: (resembles some Bantu words for “Elephant”)
    “ivory” in Hungarian
    “ivory” in Finnish
    norsu     (u-SRON backwards)
    “elephant” in Finnish 
    ZAHN is the German word for TOOTH
    and quite similar to the Mongol word for Elephant = ZAAN.
    Often one can observe a similarity between Tooth/Ivory and ELEPHANT. 
    Stoßzahn is the German word for TUSK = means “Stab-Tooth”. 
    In Kalderaš the words for IVORY are “ivorio” and “filo”. (filo is Semitic) (Ivorio is Indo-European)
    Roma and Karderaš words for Elephant and Ivory are significant because like nomadic hunters of mammoths the Romany peoples in the last few centuries were mobile and acquired loan-words from others.  
    The SLONs continue to the Americas in MYTHS as TSONoquas…
    One should not expect Native Americans to have a word for “ELEPHANT”per se .  MYTHOLOGY of Alaska and the North-West Coast has many stories of Cannibalistic Giants – Ogres with ELEPHANT-LIKE FEATURES, and names with phonemic elements like “SLON”: 
    Tsunukwa (also spelled Dzunukwa, Dzoo-noo-qua, Dzoonokwa, Dsonoqua, Dzô’noqwa,Dzô’noq!wa, D’Sonoqua, and other ways): The Basket Ogress, a giant cannibal monster who catches human children and carries them off in her enormous pack basket. 
    Franz Boas and other prominent anthropologists of the early 20th Century wrote of Mythologies about Cannibalistic GIANTS and OGRES in Alaska, North-West coast of North America, the Northern Rockies, and in Siberia.  Others wrote about similar Mythological creatures in the cultures of the Saami of Lapland, Ancient Greeks, Wrangell Island, and even in Australia.  Categorically, the Mythological Creatures which they describe are: 1. Very large. 2. Either male or female. 3. They have small, hollow, deep-set eyes and are almost blind. 4. Often they have only one eye.  5. They have copious bodily hair. 6. They have a siphon or a proboscis which they use to suck life (or blood)(or brains)  out from people.  7. From their nose they blow out mucus (snots) at boys.  8. They have thick (pachyderm) skin which protects them from injury.  9.Humans dig pits and cover such with debris to create dead-fall traps (for creatures who have bulk rather than agility).  10. The Mythological creatures vocalize with whistle-like trumpeting sounds.  11.  Females have large breasts (located – as on humans, in the thorax region). 12.  They have a “Basket” on the upper back (hump for reserve?).  13.  They have “Stones” on either side of the head (tusks?).  13. Very often the names of these Cannibalistic Ogres contain the phonemic clusters resembling the Chinese and/or Slavic words for “Elephant” = SIOŋ or SLON.  14. Note how TSONoqua, TSONerhwah, STALLO, CLOO-teekl…  resemble the Chinese and/or Slavic words for “Elephant”.  15. The Giant Cannibals often have a LARGE CUTTING NOSE or GLASS BEAK.   16.  The giants are drowsy and prone to lapse into catatonic sleep.  17. They have a mixture of human and quadruped features.  18. They go distances for water.  18. TSONoqua has magical treasure, she has supernatural power and she can return to life.  19. Described as a fat ugly woman.  20. Called: SPLIT PERSON (part human?)  20. These monsters Sit like a person.  21.  As in Alaska and British Colombia (Canada) similar Cannibal Giantesses are in the Mythology of Koriaks andChukchees. …in Siberia   22.  Specifically, common to the Indian and Mongol-Turk tales a monster woman is described in the myths of the Bella Coola Indians as a cannibal who inserts her long snout in the ears of a man and sucks out his brain.  22.  She is afterwards transformed into mosquitoes. 
        With the detailed descriptions and tales of the OGRES provided above I was lead to the conclusion thatthese are in fact stories of ELEPHANTS and MAMMOTHS orally transmitted since the Upper Paleolithic.  I was perplexed that Franz Boas (who is known as the Father of American Anthropology) did not make a similar leap of faith.  Recently I had written two papers addressing the observation that the words for Elephant were very similar across Eurasia.  

    Petr Jandacek
    127 La Senda Rd.
    Is the TSONoqua the Russian слониха  ?? 
    Thank you for considering my hypothesis.
    Sincerely, Petr Jandacek in Los Alamos NM USA 

    • Irene Thompson

      Very fascinating. Frankly, I wouldn’t know how to respond to your not very clearly stated hypothesis. By the way, the Russian word for femaly elephant слониха consists of the root ‘слон’ + the derivational feminizing suffix ‘их’ + the inflectional nominative singular for feminine nouns ‘a’. The feminizing suffix их is fairly common and can be found in a number of words, e.g., портной – портниха ‘tailor’, купец – купчиха ‘merchant, trader’, etc. I wouldn’t include any words containing derivational and inflectional affixes in trying to establish relationships. I am sure you are familiar with the work of Morris Swadesh in lexicostatistics and glottochronology.

  2. micah

    Gooday im doing a task and i would like to know how the san people greet in they’re lanuage .

    • Irene Thompson

      There are quite a few Khoisan languages. Check out


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