Khoekhoe speaker in traditional dress


Khoekhoe is a Khoesan language spoken by as many as 250,000 people in Southern Africa. The majority live in Namibia, though there are also some speakers in South Africa and Botswana. Early linguistic work referred to the language as Hottentot, though this term is now considered pejorative, or Nama, the name of one of the ethnic groups that speaks it. The are few, if any, monolingual speakers of Khoekhoe. Nearly all Khoekhoe speakers also speak Afrikaans, and proficiency in English has increased significantly since it became Namibia’s official language in 1990.

To outsiders, the most striking feature of Khoekhoe’s phonology is the preponderance of clicks, since more than 70% of content words begin with one of 16 click phonemes. Khoekhoe also distinguishes between oral and nasal vowels, and six different tone classes. Altogether, Khoekhoe's segment inventory includes 32 consonants and 8 vowels, for a total of 40 segments. From a cross-linguistic perspective, this is fairly large. One balanced survey of 451 languages found a median of 29 segments per language (range: 11 to 141), with 70% having between 21 and 40. But in a Khoesan context, Khoekhoe's inventory is modest: Nǀuu has 86 segments (73 consonants, 13 vowels), Gǀui has 99 (89 consonants, 10 vowels), Juǀ'hoansi (ǃXũ) has 123 (89 consonants, 34 vowels) and ǃXóõ has 163 (119 consonants, 44 vowels). The richness of these inventories is the result of articulatory properties that are unique to clicks and a striking flexibility in the combination of manner and phonation contrasts.

Below are examples of Khoekhoe presented by native speakers. The first is a text that illustrates Khoekhoe connected speech, read by consultant Willendia Ganases (pictured above). Note that the story is a translation of a standard used in linguistic descriptions, not a Khoekhoe folk tale. The second example is the first in a series of Khoekhoe lessons that has been posted on YouTube. The use of slashes (“/” and “//”) and the pound sign (“#”) for the dental, lateral and palatal clicks is a common solution to the problem of click representation, particularly with typewriters and cell phones.

ǀAwas-ǂoab tsî sores tsîra xa (The North Wind and the Sun)

ǀAwas-ǂoab tsî sores tsîra ra ǂnoagu tari-i a ǀgaisa ǃkhaisa hîab ge ǃnari-aoba ǀamsa saraba ana hâse ge ǀkhī. ǁÎn ge ge mîǀgui ǁnā-i îa ga ǂguro ǃgâiǃgâ tsî ǃnari-aoba ǁîb di saraba ūǁnā kai-i, ǁnā-i ge ǀgaisa nau-i xa. Ob ge ǀAwas-ǂoaba ǁkhāb as gōse ge ǃgom, xaweb ta ǀgaib ǃnâ ǃgoms gōseb ge ǃnari-aoba ob ta anasen o, o ra anasen, tsîb ge ǀAwas-ǂoaba ega ge ǀûsen. Os ge Soresa ge ǀam tsîb ge ǃnari-aoba ǁnātimîs ai ǁîb di saraba ge ǁhû. Ob ge ǀAwas ǂoaba ǀnîtib nî mî ǀgau-i a ǀkhai xui ao ge mîǁnâ, sores ǁîra ǃnâ a ǀgaisa ǃkhaisa.

The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.

Khoekhoe Instruction by Native Speakers