!Kung language

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Not to be confused with Ju language (Chadic) or Kung language (Cameroon).
Northern Khoisan (obsolete)
Native to Namibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa
Ethnicity !Kung people
Native speakers
14,000–18,000  (2013)[citation needed]
  • !Kung
Western (North-Central)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
knw – Ekoka !Kung
vaj – Sekela
ktz – Juǀʼhoansi
Glottolog juku1256[1]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

!Kung /ˈkʊŋ/ (!Xuun), also known as Ju,[2] is a dialect continuum (language complex) spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola by the ǃKung people. Together with the ǂHoan language, it forms the proposed Kx'a language family. !Kung constituted one of the branches of the putative Khoisan language family, and was called Northern Khoisan in that scenario, but the unity of Khoisan has never been demonstrated and is suspected to be spurious. Nonetheless, the term "Khoisan" is widely retained as a convenience.[3]

!Kung is famous for having a large number of clicks, such as the ǃ in its name, and has some of the most complex inventories of both consonants and vowels in the world. It also has tone. For a description, see Juǀʼhoansi. To pronounce !Xuun one makes a click sound before the x sound (which is like a Scottish or German ch), followed by a nasal u vowel.[citation needed]


!Kung, if considered a single language, is the second or third most populous Khoisan language after Nama and perhaps Sandawe.

Estimates vary, but there are perhaps 30–60 thousand speakers.[citation needed] There is much confusion with the names of Khoisan languages, with the result that dialects may be counted more than once; thus Ethnologue reports 6,000 speakers of ǃʼOǃKung, 7,000 of !Kung-Ekoka (|Akhwe), and over 60,000 speakers of "Vasekela Bushman", but then identifies Vasekela as ǃʼOǃKung and suggests that it may be the same as !Kung-Ekoka as well. In addition, they report 34,000 speakers of Juǀʼhoan, 7,000 of ǂKxʼauǁʼein, and 2,000 of Maligo, but do not give separate figures for the central dialects.

Until the mid–late twentieth century, the ǃʼOǃKung and Maligo dialects were widespread in southern and central Angola. However, most !Kung fled the civil war to Namibia (primarily to the Caprivi Strip) and to South Africa. Botswana hosts a minority of Juǀʼhoan speakers, but Namibia is today the center of the !Kung people and language.


The better-known !Kung dialects are Tsumkwe Juǀʼhoan, Ekoka !Kung, ǃʼOǃKung, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein. Scholars distinguish between eleven and fifteen dialects, which may not be mutually intelligible when not adjacent, but there are no clear-cut distinctions between them at our present state of knowledge.

Sands et al. classify !Kung varieties into four clusters, with the first two being quite close:[4]

  • Northern !Kung: Southern Angola, around the Cunene, Cubango, Cuito, and Cuando rivers, but with many refugees now in Namibia:
  • North-Central !Kung: Namibia, between the Ovambo River and the Angolan border, around the tributaries of the Okavango River east of Rundu to the Etosha Pan:
ǀʼAkhwe (Ekoka)

ǂKxʼauǁʼein is too poorly attested to assign a place within this classification; if it belongs to one of these four groups, it is presumably Southeastern.

Heine & Honken (2010) classify 11 varieties into three branches:[5]

  • Northern–Western !Xuun
Northern !Xuun
Maligo (!xuun, kúándò !xuun "Kwando !Xuun"; SE Angola)
ǃʼOǃKung (!ʼo !uŋ "Forest !Xuun"; eastern C Angola)
Western !Xuun
— (!xūún, !ʼālè !xòān "Valley !Xuun"; Eenhana district, N Namibia)
Akhwe (!xūún, ǀʼākhòè !xòān "Kwanyama !Xuun"; Eenhana, N Namibia)
Tsintsabis (!xūún; Tsintsabis, Tsumeb district, N Namibia)
Kavango !Xuun (!xūún, known as dom !xūún "River !Xuun" in Ekoka; Western Rundu district, N Namibia, & Angola adjacent)
Gaub (Tsumeb district, N Namibia)
Neitsas (Grootfontein district, N Namibia)
Juǀʼhoan (ju-|ʼhoan(-si); Tsumkwe district, N Namibiba, & Bots adjacent)
Dikundu (!xun, ju-|ʼhoa(si); Dikundu, W Caprivi)
ǂKxʼauǁʼein (ju-|ʼhoan(-si), !xun, ǂxʼāōǁʼàèn "Northern people"; Gobabis district, E Namibia)


The ancestral language, Proto-Juu or Proto-!Xuun, had five places of click articulation: Dental, alveolar, palatal, alveolar lateral, and retroflex (*ǃ˞ or *‼). The retroflex clicks have dropped out of Southeastern dialects such as Juǀʼhoan, but remain in Central !Kung. In ǀʼAkhwe (Ekoka), the palatal click has become a fricated alveolar.[6][7]

Proto-Juu 'belly' *‼ 'water'
SE (Tsumkwe) ᶢǃű ᶢǃű ǂ
N (Okongo/ǀʼAkhwe) ᶢǃű ᶢǁű ǃ͡s
NW (Mangetti Dune) ᶢǃű ᶢǁű ǂ
C (Neitsas/Nurugas) ᶢǃú ᶢ‼ú ǂ


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Ju-Kung". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ The term !Kung is typically used when considering the dialects to constitute a single language; Ju tends to be used when considering them as a language family. The term !Kung is also sometimes used for the northern or northern and western dialects, as opposed to the well documented Juǀʼhoansi in the southeast; however speakers of nearly all dialects call themselves !Xuun (!Kung).
    Additional spellings of !Kung / !Xuun are ǃHu, ǃKhung, ǃKu, Kung, Qxü, ǃung, ǃXo, Xû, ǃXû, Xun, ǃXung, ǃXũũ, !Xun, ʗhũ: (Doke 1926), and additional spellings of Ju are Dzu, Juu, Zhu.
  3. ^ Brown & Ogilvie, 2008, Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, p 601
  4. ^ Bonny Sands, 2003. "Juu Subgroups Based on Phonological Patterns"
  5. ^ Heine, B. and Honken, H. 2010. "The Kx'a Family: A New Khoisan Genealogy". Journal of Asian and African Studies (Tokyo), 79, p. 5–36.
  6. ^ Miller, Sands, et al., 2010. "Retroflex Clicks in Two Dialects of !Xung"
  7. ^ Miller, Holliday, Howcroft, Phillips, Smith, Tsui, & Scott. 2011. "The Phonetics of the Modern-day reflexes of the Proto‐palatal click in Juu languages".