!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
16,000 ± 2,000 (2011)[1]
  • !Kung
Western (North-Central)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
knw – Ekoka !Kung
vaj – Sekela
ktz – Juǀʼhoansi
Glottolog juku1256[2]
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,[3] 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.[4]

!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 (pronounced [ǃ͡χu᷄ː̃] in Western !Kung/!Xuun) one makes a click sound before the x sound (which is like a Scottish or German ch), followed by a long nasal u vowel with a high rising tone.[5]


If the !Kung languages are counted together, they would make the third-most-populous Khoisan language after Khoekhoe and Sandawe. The most populous !Kung language, Juǀʼhoan, is perhaps tied for third place with Naro.

Estimates vary, but there are perhaps 15,000 speakers, though counting is difficult because speakers are scattered on farms, interspersed with speakers of other languages. Brenzinger (2011)[1] counts 9,000 in Namibia, 2,000 in Botswana, 3,700 in South Africa, and 1,000 in Angola. Most of these figures are preliminary guesses, especially in Angola, where no demographic or linguistic surveys have been conducted since the civil war.

Until the mid–late twentieth century, the ǃʼOǃKung and Maligo dialects were widespread in southern and central Angola. However, most !Kung fled the Angolan Civil War to Namibia (primarily to the Caprivi Strip) and to South Africa.[clarification needed][citation needed] Botswana hosts a minority of Juǀʼhoan speakers.


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:[6]

  • 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 was too poorly attested to classify, but has since been determined to be Southeastern.

Heine & Honken (2010) classify 11 varieties into three branches:[7]

  • 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.[8][9]

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. ^ a b 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. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Ju-Kung". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Brown & Ogilvie, 2008, Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, p 601
  5. ^ For phonology and tones, see list of !Xun dialect names in Heine B. & Honken H. 2010. "The Kx'a Family: A New Khoisan Genealogy" Journal of Asian and African Studies (Tokyo), 79, p. 5–36.
  6. ^ Bonny Sands, 2003. "Juu Subgroups Based on Phonological Patterns"
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Miller, Sands, et al., 2010. "Retroflex Clicks in Two Dialects of !Xung"
  9. ^ Miller, Holliday, Howcroft, Phillips, Smith, Tsui, & Scott. 2011. "The Phonetics of the Modern-day reflexes of the Proto‐palatal click in Juu languages".