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Alternative Names: Khoesaan, Khoesan.

Name Origin: Khoisan is a compound word formed with the native words khoi ‘person' and san ‘forager', meaning 'persons who forage in the bush' or 'bushmen'. A more correct spelling is Khoesaan.

Overview. Khoisan languages are spoken by hunter-gatherers and pastoralists of southern Africa who in ancient times thrived in the region but were progressively displaced, initially by massive Bantu immigrant populations and later by European colonizers. Most of them are endangered and some have become extinct. They have been grouped together because all have many consonants of a special kind called clicks. Some Bantu languages also have clicks but they borrowed them from Khoisan. Apart from click sounds, Khoisan languages differ substantially in morphology, syntax and vocabulary.

Distribution. Khoisan languages were once spoken across all of southern Africa. They are now limited to Namibia, Botswana and southern Angola with only a few speakers in South Africa and Tanzania.

External Classification. The unity and validity of Khoisan as a group of genetically related languages is much disputed. Traditionally, they are considered one of four African language phyla along with Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo.

Internal Classification and Speakers. Khoisan languages are spoken by half a million people or less. They are divided into North, Central and South Khoisan groups belonging to southern Africa, plus two Tanzanian isolates, Sandawe and Hadza (Hatsa), which possess a few words, affixes, and particles that justify the assumption of a distant relationship with Khoisan.

    North Khoisan is spoken by hunter-gatherers mainly in Namibia. Central Khoisan, the largest group, includes Nama (Khoekhoe, Khoekhoegowab) and Haiom (Saan) spoken in Namibia, and smaller languages spoken in the Kalahari desert of Botswana. South Khoisan includes a couple of endangered, and several extinct, languages of the Kalahari Desert.



Status. The number of Khoisan speakers has declined drastically in the last three centuries due to European colonization, demographic pressures and changing lifestyles. Some languages have become extinct and others are endangered. Nama, the largest Khoisan language, is officially recognized in Namibia and is taught at universities. The other Khoisan languages are unrecognized and marginalized, specially in South Africa.


  1. Phonology

  2. -The most distinctive and universal feature of Khoisan languages is their click sounds. Clicks are ingressive consonantal stops produced by an intake of air followed by a sudden withdrawal of the tongue from the soft palate, front teeth, or back teeth and hard palate. The basic clicks are four: dental (|), alveolar (!), palatal (ǂ), and lateral (ǁ). Southern Khoisan has a fifth click, the bilabial ʘ. The Tanzanian languages, Sandawe and Hadza, use only three basic clicks: |, ǁ, and !.

  1. -Each click can combine with a number of accompanying articulations such as voicing, nasality, aspiration, and ejection producing a potentially large number of consonantal sounds: Nama has 20, Gwi 52, Ju'hoan 55 and Xóo 83. Besides clicks, Khoisan languages have non-click consonants, giving rise to very complex consonantal systems which are among the largest in the world. As a balance to consonant complexity, strict rules restrict clicks and most of the non-clicks to the beginning of a word being followed always by a vowel.

  1. -Khoisan languages have normally five vowels which can be expanded by different voice qualities (breathy and creaky), nasalization and pharyngealization.

  1. -All Khoisan languages are tonal and most have four tones. Central Khoisan tones are subject to sandhi processes (a tone may change according to its phonological environment).

  1. Morphology


  1. -Central Khoisan has a rich morphology with three genders (masculine, feminine, common gender) and three numbers (single, dual, and plural) marked by suffixes. Noun dependents agree with it in gender and number.

  1. -In contrast, North and South Khoisan have little inflectional morphology and no gender distinction. North Khoisan languages have an almost complete absence of affixes and form their plural by using suppletive forms. South Khoisan forms plurals by addition of suffixes, reduplication, partial change of the stems or by suppletive forms.

  1. -North and South Khoisan have a few noun-classes which are, in part, semantically based. For example, Xóo (belonging to South Khoisan) has five noun-classes: class 1 is mainly for mass nouns (water, milk, dust), class 2 is for parts of a whole (head, face) and diminutives, class 3 for living beings and class 4 for human plurals. Ju’hoan (belonging to North Khoisan) has four noun-classes: class 1 is for plants and singular animate nouns, class 2 is for some plural animate nouns (own social group), class 3 is for body parts and deverbal nouns and class 4 is for long objects and all other plural animates.


  1. -Tenses in North and South Khoisan are formed by adding particles before the verb, or a word or an expression indicating time. In Central Khoisan, tenses are marked by particles (Nama) or by suffixes (Khoe, Ani).

  1. -Derivative stems with causative, reflexive, reciprocal and benefactive meanings are characteristic of Central Khoisan which has also passive constructions. In contrast, North and South Khoisan lack passives.

  1. -Serial verbs are common in all Khoisan languages but are more frequent in North and South Khoisan.

  1. Syntax

  2. -Central Khoisan is mostly Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) while Northern and Southern are SVO with a predominantly head-modifier order. In Central Khoisan SVO is also quite common.

Scripts. Most of the languages are unwritten, but writing systems have been developed for Nama and Ju'hoan.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Khoisan'. T. Güldemann & R. Vossen. In African Languages. An Introduction, 99-123. B. Heine & D. Nurse (eds). Cambridge University Press (2000).

  2. -'Internal and External Relations of Khoekhoe Dialects: a preliminary survey'. W. H. G. Haacke, E. Eiseb & L. Namaseb. In Namibian Languages: reports and papers, 125–209. W. H. G. Haacke & E. D. Elderkin (eds). Köppe (1997).

  3. -Eastern and Southern African Khoisan. B. Sands. Research in Khoisan Studies 14. Köppe (1998).

  4. -'The Click Languages of Southern and Eastern Africa'. E. Westphal. In Linguistics in sub-Saharan Africa, 367-420. T. Sebeok (ed). Mouton (1971).

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Khoisan Languages

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