Khwe language

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Native to Namibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia
Region Northwest District in Botswana, Khwai River, Mababe
Native speakers
8,000 (2011)[1]
(7,000 Khwe and 1,000 ǁAni)
  • Kalahari (Tshu–Khwe)
    • Northwest
      • Khwe
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
xuu – Khwe
hnh – ǁAni (Handa)
Glottolog kxoe1242[2]

Khwe (also rendered Kxoe, Khoe; /ˈkw/ or /ˈkɔɪ/) is a dialect continuum of the Khoe family of Namibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa, and parts of Zambia, with some 8,000 speakers.[1]


Khwe is a member of the Khoe language family.

The 2000 meeting of the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in South Africa (WIMSA) produced the Penduka Declaration on the Standardisation of Ju and Khoe Languages,[3] which recommends Khwe be classified as part of the Central Khoe-San family, a cluster language comprising Khwe, ||Ani and Buga.[4]

Khwe is the preferred spelling as recommended by the Penduka Declaration,[3] but the language is also referred to as Kxoe, Khoe-dam and Khwedam. Barakwena, Barakwengo and Mbarakwena refer to speakers of the language and are considered pejorative.[5]

Other names and spellings of ǁAni include ǀAnda, Gǀanda, Handá, Gani, Tanne, and Tsʼéxa with various combinations of -kwe/khwe/khoe and -dam.


It is learned locally as a second language in Namibia, but the language is being lost in Botswana as speakers shift to Tswana. Thousands of Kxoe were murdered in Angola after independence, as they had been used by the Portuguese as trackers.[6] However, some may have returned to Angola more recently.

There exist a dictionary of the Khwe language.


The Khoe mainly occupy the Okavango Delta of Botswana.[4] An estimated 3700 Khwe speakers live in Namibia, with the vast majority residing in the western region of the Zambezi Region.[7] The largest known Khwe settlements are Mutc'iku, located adjacent to the Okavango River, and Gudigoa in Botswana.[1]

In 1990, 4000 Xhu and Khwe,[8] including former members of the 31 Battalion (SWATF) who fought under the South African Defence Force in the Namibian War, were settled in a tent town in Schmidtsdrift, South Africa. In 2003, the majority of this community relocated to Platfontein, outside Kimberley, following the Schmidtsdrift Community Land Claim[9]


Khwe has 70 phonemic consonants, including 35 clicks, as well as 25 vowel phonemes, including diphthongs and nasalised vowels. Khwe's tone system has been analysed as containing 9 syllabic tones (3 register and 6 contour),[10] although more recent proposed analyses identify only 3 lexical tones, high, mid and low, with the mora as the basic unit of phonological structure.[11] Tone sandhi processes are common in Khwe and related languages.[12]

Khoe click inventories generally combine four anterior constrictions types with nine to eleven anterior constrictions. The exact size of the click inventory in Khwe is unclear. Köhler established an inventory of 36 click phonemes, from combinations of four influxes and nine effluxes, as well as a borrowed voiced alveolar click, ⟨ǃ̬⟩. Kilian-Hatz identifies only 32 phonemic segments, due to gaps in the alveolar click type series, with Khwe being the only language to have a pre-nasalized voiced click.[11][13]

Clicks occur exclusively in initial position on grammatical morphemes and lexical roots.


Khwe is a suffixing language, and thus has a rich inventory of head-marking suffixes on nouns and verbs. Verbs take tense-aspect-mood suffixes (TAMs), marking for causative, applicative, comitative, locative, passive, reflexive and reciprocal.[14] Nouns are marked with person-gender-number suffixes (PGNs). Gender division in Khwe is based on sex, and is expressed by PGNs, with gender being marked even in first-person dual and plural.

Negation in Khwe is indicated with the clause-final negative particle vé, which can be used to indicate non-occurrence of an event, non-equation between entities, and the non-possession of an entity.[11] The post-verbal particle can also be used, although it's application is limited to prohibitive functions, such as negative imperatives and the negative hortative and jussive constructions, in which can also be used.[11]


Generally, Khoisan languages have an SV constituent order. Central Khoisan languages have a dominant AOV constituent order, including Khwe, though AOV and OAV order is used more frequently in casual conversation and storytelling.[15]

Khwe lacks a separate class of adjectives. Pronouns, nouns and verbs, especially state verbs, can be used attributively. Khwe has a modifier-head order,[15] in which manner adverbs precede the verb, and adjectives and possessors attributes precede the noun.

In Khwe, subjects of intransitive verbs, subjects and direct objects of transitive verbs, and one of the objects of ditransitive verbs are commonly omitted when the participants are known to the speakers through inner- or extra-linguistic context.[16]

Khwe has two multiverbal constructions that may denote a series of closely connected events: serial verb constructions (SVC) and converb constructions.[16] An SVC expresses a complex event composed by two or more single events that happen at the same time, and a converb construction marks the immediate succession of two or more events.

SVCs in Khwe consist of two or more verbs forming a single intonation unit, with only the last verb being marked for TAM. The preceding verbs obligatorily take the active voice suffix. Converb constructions may consist of two or more verbs, only one of which takes the TAM marking.


In opposition to the postulated linguistic universal regarding the primacy of the visual domain in the hierarchy of the verbs of perception,[17] Khwe's most widely applied verb of perception is ǁám̀, 'taste, smell, touch'.[12] Khwe has three verbs of perception, the other two being mṹũ 'see', and kóḿ 'hear', but ǁám̀, which is semantically rooted in oral perception, is used to convey holistic modes of sensory perception.[12]

The Khwe term x|óa functions both as a verb 'to be little, few, some' and as an alternative way of expressing the quantity 'three'. This term is unique in its ambiguity among numeral terms used by African hunter-gatherer subsistence communities.[18]

Khwe has a large number of loan words from Afrikaans.[16]


In 1957, Oswin Köhler, founder of the Institut für Afrikanistik at the University of Cologne, designed an orthography of Khwe in which he published three volumes of texts and grammatical sketches, based on observations of language and culture made over 30 years of visits to Namibia.[19] As Köhler's orthography was designed for academic purposes, his volumes were published in German or French, and therefore inaccessible to the Khwe themselves. Köhler never made an attempt to teach literacy to members of the community.

Attempts to teach the Khwe orthography to first language speakers were not made until 1996, bÿ scholars of the Institut who took up Köhler's work. At the request and with the consultation of the Khwe, the orthography was revised and simplified by Matthias Brenzinger and Mathias Schladt between 1996 and 1997.[20]

A collection of Khwe folktales was published in 1999 by Christa Kilian-Hatz and David Naude, using the revised orthography along with interlinear and free translations.[21] Kilian-Hatz also published a dictionary of Khwe[22], although this is written in the linguistic orthography which uses symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet in place of the Latin script use for the applied orthography.

The revised orthography has not been granted official status in Namibia. The Khwe language is not taught as a subject or used as a language of instruction in formal education, and few literacy materials exist.[19]


  1. ^ a b c Brenzinger, Matthias (2011) "The twelve modern Khoisan languages." In Witzlack-Makarevich & Ernszt (eds.), Khoisan languages and linguistics: proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium, Riezlern / Kleinwalsertal (Research in Khoisan Studies 29). Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Kxoe–Ani". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ a b Working Group of Indigenous Minorities of Southern Africa (WIMSA) (20 April 2011). "The Penduka Declaration on the Standardisation of Ju and Khoe Languages". Windhoek, Nambia: Penduka Training Centre. 
  4. ^ a b Chebanne, Andy (19 July 2010). "The Role of Dictionaries in the Documentation and Codification of African Languages: The Case of Khoisan". Lexikos. Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS). 24. 
  5. ^ Bright, William (ed.). The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. 4. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 363. 
  6. ^ den Hertog, Thijs Nicolaas (2013). "Diversity behind constructed unity: the resettlement process of the !Xun and Khwe communities in South Africa". Journal of Contemporary African Studies. 31 (3). 
  7. ^ Brenzinger, Matthias (1997). Moving to Survive: Kxoe Communities in Arid Lands. Universität zu Köln: Institut für Afrikanistik. pp. 321–357. 
  8. ^ Hitchcock, Robert K.; Vindig, Diana (2004). Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Southern Africa. Copenhagen, Denmark: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. pp. 29–32. ISBN 8791563089. 
  9. ^ Kleinbooi, Karin (August 2007). "Schmidtsdrift Community Land Claim" (PDF). Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies, School of Government, University of the Western Cap. Retrieved 4 October 2015. 
  10. ^ Köhler,, K. (1998). Hurford, J., ed. "The development of sound systems in human language". Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases. 
  11. ^ a b c d Kilian-Hatz, Christa (2008). A grammar of modern Khwe. Quellen zur Khoisanforschung 23. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe. 
  12. ^ a b c Storch, Ann; Aikhenvald, Alexandra (2013). Perception and Cognition in Language and Culture. Leiden: Brill. 
  13. ^ Kilian-Hatz, Christa (2003). Khwe dictionary with a supplement on Khwe place names of West Caprivi. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. ISBN 3-89645-083-2. 
  14. ^ Heine, Bernd; Nurse, Derek (2007). Linguistic Geography of Africa. Cambridge Approaches to Language Contact. A. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781281156112. 
  15. ^ a b Killian-Hatz, Christa (2009). Dimmendaal, Gerrit Jan, ed. Coding Participant Marking: Construction Types in Twelve African Languages. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing. 
  16. ^ a b c Aikenvald, Alexandra; Dixon, R.M.W. (2005). Serial Verb Constructions: A Cross-Linguistic Typology. Explorations in Linguistic Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 108–110. 
  17. ^ Viberg, Ake (2001). Haspelmath, M. et. al., ed. The verbs of perception: a typological study. Language Typology and Language Universals: An International Handbook. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter. pp. 1294–1309. 
  18. ^ Epps, Patience; Bowern, Claire; Hansen, Cynthia A.; Hill, Jane H.; Zentz, Jason. "On numeral complexity in hunter-gatherer languages". Linguistic Typology. 16 (1). doi:10.1515/lity-2012-0002. 
  19. ^ a b Haacke, W.G. (2006). "Linguistic research for literary empowerment of Khoesaan languages of Namibia". African Studies. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. 64 (2): 157–176. 
  20. ^ Schladt, Mathias (2000). Batibo, H.M.; Tsonope, J., eds. A Multipurpose Orthography for Kxoe: Development and Challenges. The State of Khoesaan Languages in Botswana. Basarwa Language Project. pp. 125–139. 
  21. ^ Kilian-Hatz, Christa (1999). "Folktales of the Kxoe in the West Caprivi". Namibian African Studies. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe. 5. 
  22. ^ Kilian-Hatz, Christa (2003). Khwe Dictionary (with a Supplement on Khwe Place-names of West Caprivi by Matthias Brenzinger). Namibian African Studies 7. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. ISBN 3-89645-083-2. 

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