Nǀuu elder

Khoesan Languages

The term Khoesan (or Khoisan) is used to refer to a set of languages spoken by fewer than 500,000 people in Southern and Eastern Africa. The defining feature of these languages is their use of consonants known as clicks. Though many languages use click-like sounds paralinguistically (e.g., the sound spelled tsk-tsk in English, or the sound used to call a horse), clicks are used as regular phonemes only in Africa. It is not clear why clicks should be so rare cross-linguistically, because they are very salient perceptually and they tend to be common in languages that use them. In Khoekhoe, roughly 72% of nouns, verbs and adjectives (aka roots) begin with a click. In ǃXóõ, that number is 73% and in Juǀ’hoansi, 68%. So while clicks may seem exceptional to speakers of other languages, they are the backbone of Khoesan phoneme inventories.

But though all Khoesan languages have clicks, not all languages with clicks are Khoesan. Clicks have been borrowed by speakers of neighboring languages, like the Southern Bantu languages Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa, and the Cushitic language Dahalo in Kenya. Nobody knows for sure why speakers of these languages added click consonants to their phoneme inventories, but it likely has to do with the perceptual salience of the clicks themselves and the sociolinguistic relationships among the speakers of the different languages.

It is also important to note that Khoesan languages do not constitute a language family in the way that Indo-European languages do. Rather, it is a cover term for those African languages that use clicks phonemically but are not known to belong to any other family. Though some researchers (most notably Greenberg 1966) have argued in favor of what is sometimes called the “macro-Khoesan hypothesis”, evidence has always been scant. Most specialists do, however, group the various Khoesan languages into several distinct lineages.

Currently, the content of this site focuses on Khoekhoe phonetics and phonology, because that is my area of expertise. Eventually, though, I will build it up into something more comprehensive.