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Khoekhoe language

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Native toNamibia, Botswana and South Africa
RegionOrange River, Great Namaland, Damaraland
EthnicityKhoikhoi, Nama, Damara, Haiǁom, ǂKhomani
Native speakers
200,000 ± 10,000 (2011)[1]
  • Khoe
    • Khoekhoe
      • Khoekhoe
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
naq – Khoekhoe, Nama
hgm – Haiǁom
Glottolognort3245  Subfamily: North Khoekhoe
nama1264  Language: Nama
haio1238  Language: Haiǁom-Akhoe
The distribution of the Nama language in Namibia
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
The Khoe language

The Khoekhoe /ˈkɔɪkɔɪ/ KOY-koy language (Khoekhoegowab, Khoekhoe pronunciation: [k͡xʰo̜͡ek͡xʰo̜͡egowab]), also known by the ethnic terms Nama (Namagowab) /ˈnɑːmə/ NAH-mə,[3] Damara (ǂNūkhoegowab), or Nama/Damara[4][5] and formerly as Hottentot,[b] is the most widespread of the non-Bantu languages of Southern Africa that make heavy use of click consonants and therefore were formerly classified as Khoisan, a grouping now recognized as obsolete. It belongs to the Khoe language family, and is spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa primarily by three ethnic groups: Namakhoen, ǂNūkhoen, and Haiǁomkhoen.


The Haiǁom, who had spoken a Juu language, later shifted to Khoekhoe. The name for the speakers, Khoekhoen, is from the word khoe "person", with reduplication and the suffix -n to indicate the general plural. Georg Friedrich Wreede was the first European to study the language, after arriving in ǁHui!gaeb (later Cape Town) in 1659. [citation needed]


Khoekhoe is a national language in Namibia. In Namibia and South Africa, state-owned broadcasting corporations produce and broadcast radio programmes in Khoekhoe.

It is estimated that only around 167,000 speakers of Khoekhoe remain in Africa, which makes it an endangered language. In 2019, the University of Cape Town ran a series of short courses teaching the language, and 21 September 2020 launched its new Khoi and San Centre. An undergraduate degree programme is being planned to be rolled out in coming years.[7]


Modern scholars generally see three dialects:

They are distinct enough that they might be considered two or three distinct languages.[citation needed]

  • Eini (extinct) is also close but is now generally counted as a distinct language.[citation needed]


Nama man giving lessons on the Khoekhoe language


There are 5 vowel qualities, found as oral /i e a o u/ and nasal ã ũ/. /u/ is strongly rounded, /o/ only slightly so. /a/ is the only vowel with notable allophony; it is pronounced [ə] before /i/ or /u/.


Nama has been described as having three[8] or four[9][10][11] tones, /á, ā, à/ or /a̋, á, à, ȁ/, which may occur on each mora (vowels and final nasal consonants). The high tone is higher when it occurs on one of the high vowels ( ú/) or on a nasal ( ḿ/) than on mid or low vowels ( á ó/).[8]

The tones combine into a limited number of 'tone melodies' (word tones), which have sandhi forms in certain syntactic environments. The most important melodies, in their citation and main sandhi forms, are as follows:[9]

Citation Sandhi Meaning Melody
ǃ̃ˀȍm̀s ǃ̃ˀòm̏s butting, hitting s.t. low
ǃ̃ˀȍḿs an udder low rising
ǃ̃ˀòm̀s forcing out of a burrow mid
ǃ̃ˀòm̋s ǃ̃ˀòm̀s a pollard high rising
ǃ̃ˀóm̀s ǃ̃ˀóm̏s coagulating, prizing out [a thorn] low falling
ǃ̃ˀőḿs ǃ̃ˀóm̀s a fist high falling


Within a phrase, lexical words receive greater stress than grammatical words. Within a word, the first syllable receives the most stress. Subsequent syllables receive less and less stress and are spoken more and more quickly.


Nama has 31 consonants: 20 clicks and only 11 non-clicks.[9]


Orthography in brackets.

Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩
Plosive p ~ β ⟨b/p⟩ t ~ ɾ ⟨t/d/r⟩ k ⟨k/g⟩ ʔ ⟨-⟩
Affricate t͜sʰ ⟨ts⟩ k͜xʰ ⟨kh⟩
Fricative s ⟨s⟩ x ⟨x⟩ h ⟨h⟩

Between vowels, /p/ is pronounced [β] and /t/ is pronounced [ɾ]. The affricate series is strongly aspirated, and may be analysed phonemically as aspirated stops; in the related Korana they are [tʰ, kʰ].

Beach (1938)[12] reported that the Khoekhoe of the time had a velar lateral ejective affricate, [kʟ̝̊ʼ], a common realisation or allophone of /kxʼ/ in languages with clicks. This sound no longer occurs in Khoekhoe but remains in its cousin Korana.


The clicks are doubly articulated consonants. Each click consists of one of four primary articulations or "influxes" and one of five secondary articulation or "effluxes". The combination results in 20 phonemes.[13]

accompaniment affricated clicks 'sharp' clicks standardised
Tenuis ᵏǀ ᵏǁ ᵏǃ ᵏǂ ⟨ǃg⟩
Aspirated ᵏǀʰ ᵏǁʰ ᵏǃʰ ᵏǂʰ ⟨ǃkh⟩
Nasal ᵑǀ ᵑǁ ᵑǃ ᵑǂ ⟨ǃn⟩
Voiceless aspirated nasal ᵑ̊ǀʰ ᵑ̊ǁʰ ᵑ̊ǃʰ ᵑ̊ǂʰ ⟨ǃh⟩
Glottalized nasal ᵑ̊ǀˀ ᵑ̊ǁˀ ᵑ̊ǃˀ ᵑ̊ǂˀ ⟨ǃ⟩

The aspiration on the aspirated clicks is often light but is 'raspier' than the aspirated nasal clicks, with a sound approaching the ch of Scottish loch. The glottalised clicks are clearly voiceless due to the hold before the release, and they are transcribed as simple voiceless clicks in the traditional orthography. The nasal component is not audible in initial position; the voiceless nasal component of the aspirated clicks is also difficult to hear when not between vowels, so to foreign ears, it may sound like a longer but less raspy version of the contour clicks.

Tindall notes that European learners almost invariably pronounce the lateral clicks by placing the tongue against the side teeth and that this articulation is "harsh and foreign to the native ear". The Namaqua instead cover the whole of the palate with the tongue and produce the sound "as far back in the palate as possible".[14]


Lexical root words consist of two or rarely three moras, in the form CVCV(C), CVV(C), or CVN(C). (The initial consonant is required.) The middle consonant may only be w r m n (w is b~p and r is d~t), while the final consonant (C) may only be p, s, ts. Each mora carries tone, but the second may only be high or medium, for six tone "melodies": HH, MH, LH, HM, MM, LM.

Oral vowel sequences in CVV are /ii ee aa oo uu ai [əi] ae ao au [əu] oa oe ui/. Due to the reduced number of nasal vowels, nasal sequences are /ĩĩ ãã ũũ ãĩ [ə̃ĩ] ãũ [ə̃ũ] õã ũĩ/. Sequences ending in a high vowel (/ii uu ai au ui ĩĩ ũũ ãĩ ãũ ũĩ/) are pronounced more quickly than others (/ee aa oo ae ao oa oe ãã õã/), more like diphthongs and long vowels than like vowel sequences in hiatus. The tones are realised as contours. CVCV words tend to have the same vowel sequences, though there are many exceptions. The two tones are also more distinct.

Vowel-nasal sequences are restricted to non-front vowels: /am an om on um un/. Their tones are also realised as contours.

Grammatical particles have the form CV or CN, with any vowel or tone, where C may be any consonant but a click, and the latter cannot be NN. Suffixes and a third mora of a root, may have the form CV, CN, V, N, with any vowel or tone; there are also three C-only suffixes, -p 1m.sg, -ts 2m.sg, -s 2/3f.sg.


There have been several orthographies used for Nama. A Khoekhoegowab dictionary (Haacke 2000) uses the modern standard.

In standard orthography, the consonants b d g are used for words with one of the lower tone melodies and p t k for one of the higher tone melodies; they are otherwise pronounced the same. W is only used between vowels, though it may be replaced with b or p according to tone. Overt tone marking is otherwise generally omitted.

Orthography Transcription Melody Meaning
gao /kȁó/ low rising 'rule'
kao /kàő/ high rising 'be dumbfounded'
ǀhubu (or ǀhuwu) /ǀʰȕwú/ low rising 'to stop hurting'
ǀhupu (or ǀhuwu) /ǀʰùwű/ high rising 'to get out of breath'

Nasal vowels are written with a circumflex. All nasal vowels are long, as in /hũ̀ṹ/ 'seven'. Long (double) vowels are otherwise written with a macron, as in ā /ʔàa̋/ 'to cry, weep'; these constitute two moras (two tone-bearing units).

A glottal stop is not written at the beginning of a word (where it is predictable), but it is transcribed with a hyphen in compound words, such as gao-aob /kȁòʔòȁp/ 'chief'.

The clicks are written using the IPA symbols:

Sometimes other characters are substituted, e.g. the hash (#) in place of ǂ.[15]


Nama has a subject–object–verb word order, three nouns classes (masculine/gu-class, feminine/di-class and neuter/n-class) and three grammatical numbers (singular, dual and plural). Pronominal enclitics are used to mark person, gender, and number on the noun phrases.

Singular Dual Plural Gloss
Feminine/Di-class Piris Pirira Piridi goat
Masculine/Gu-class Arib Arikha Arigu dog
Neutral/N-class Khoe-i Khoera Khoen people

Person, gender and number markers[edit]

The PGN (person-gender-number) markers are enclitic pronouns that attach to noun phrases.[16] The PGN markers distinguish first, second, and third person, masculine, feminine, and neuter gender, and singular, dual, and plural number. The PGN markers can be divided into nominative, object, and oblique paradigms.


Masculine Feminine Neuter
Person 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
Singular ta ts b/mi/ni ta s s -i
Dual khom kho kha m ro ra m ro ra
Plural ge go gu se so di da du n


(PGN + i)

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Person 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
Singular te tsi bi/mi/ni te si si -i
Dual khom kho kha mi/im ro ra mi/im ro ra
Plural ge go gu se so di da du ni/in


(PGN + a)

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Person 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3
Singular ta tsa ba/ma/na ta sa sa -e
Dual khoma kho kha ma ro ra mo ro ra
Plural ge go ga se so de da do na


Khoekhoe has four definite articles:[16] ti, si, sa, ǁî. These definite articles can be combined with PGN markers.

Examples from Haacke (2013):

  • si-khom "we two males" (someone other than addressee and I)
  • sa-khom "we two males" (addressee and I)
  • ǁî-khom "we two males" (someone else referred to previously and I)
ti si sa ǁî
+definite +definite +definite +definite
+speaker +speaker +addressee +discussed
+human -addressee +human
+singular +human

Clause headings[edit]

There are three clause markers, ge (declarative), kha (interrogative), and ko/km (assertive). These markers appear in matrix clauses, and appear after the subject.[17]

Sample text[edit]

Following is a sample text in the Khoekhoe language.[18]

Nē ǀkharib ǃnâ da ge ǁGûn tsî ǀGaen tsî doan tsîn; tsî ǀNopodi tsî ǀKhenadi tsî ǀhuigu tsî ǀAmin tsîn; tsî ǀkharagagu ǀaon tsîna ra hō.
In this region, we find springbuck, oryx, and duiker; francolin, guinea fowl, bustard, and ostrich; and also various kinds of snake.

Common words and phrases[edit]

  • ǃGâi tsēs – Good day
  • ǃGâi ǁgoas – Good morning
  • ǃGâi ǃoes – Good evening
  • Matisa – How are you?
  • ǃGâise ǃgû re – Goodbye
  • ǁKhawa mûgus – See you soon
  • Regkomtani – I'll manage
  • Tae na Tae – How's it hanging (direct translation "What is what")


  • Khoekhoegowab/English for Children, Éditions du Cygne, 2013, ISBN 978-2-84924-309-1
  • Beach, Douglas M. 1938. The Phonetics of the Hottentot Language. Cambridge: Heffer.
  • Brugman, Johanna. 2009. Segments, Tones and Distribution in Khoekhoe Prosody. PhD Thesis, Cornell University.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid. 1976. A Nama Grammar: The Noun-phrase. MA thesis. Cape Town: University of Cape Town.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid H. G. 1977. "The So-called "Personal Pronoun" in Nama." In Traill, Anthony, ed., Khoisan Linguistic Studies 3, 43–62. Communications 6. Johannesburg: African Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid. 1978. Subject Deposition in Nama. MA thesis. Colchester, UK: University of Essex.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid. 1992. "Compound Noun Phrases in Nama". In Gowlett, Derek F., ed., African Linguistic Contributions (Festschrift Ernst Westphal), 189–194. Pretoria: Via Afrika.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid. 1992. "Dislocated Noun Phrases in Khoekhoe (Nama/Damara): Further Evidence for the Sentential Hypothesis". Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere, 29, 149–162.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid. 1995. "Instances of Incorporation and Compounding in Khoekhoegowab (Nama/Damara)". In Anthony Traill, Rainer Vossen and Marguerite Anne Megan Biesele, eds., The Complete Linguist: Papers in Memory of Patrick J. Dickens", 339–361. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid; Eiseb, Eliphas and Namaseb, Levi. 1997. "Internal and External Relations of Khoekhoe Dialects: A Preliminary Survey". In Wilfrid Haacke & Edward D. Elderkin, eds., Namibian Languages: Reports and Papers, 125–209. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag for the University of Namibia.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid. 1999. The Tonology of Khoekhoe (Nama/Damara). Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung/Research in Khoisan Studies, Bd 16. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Haacke, Wilfrid H.G. & Eiseb, Eliphas. 2002. A Khoekhoegowab Dictionary with an English-Khoekhoegowab Index. Windhoek : Gamsberg Macmillan. ISBN 99916-0-401-4
  • Hagman, Roy S. 1977. Nama Hottentot Grammar. Language Science Monographs, v 15. Bloomington: Indiana University.
  • Krönlein, Johann Georg. 1889. Wortschatz der Khoi-Khoin (Namaqua-Hottentotten). Berlin : Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft.
  • Olpp, Johannes. 1977. Nama-grammatika. Windhoek : Inboorlingtaalburo van die Departement van Bantoe-onderwys.
  • Rust, Friedrich. 1965. Praktische Namagrammatik. Cape Town : Balkema.
  • Vossen, Rainer. 2013. The Khoesan Languages. Oxon: Routledge.


  1. ^ (protected language)
  2. ^ The term was applied to Cape Khoekhoe in particular.[5] In modern times, the term is seen as offensive and should be avoided.[6]


  1. ^ 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. ^ "Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 – Chapter 1: Founding Provisions". gov.za. Retrieved 6 December 2014.
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ Haacke, Wilfrid H. G. (2018), Kamusella, Tomasz; Ndhlovu, Finex (eds.), "Khoekhoegowab (Nama/Damara)", The Social and Political History of Southern Africa's Languages, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 133–158, doi:10.1057/978-1-137-01593-8_9, ISBN 978-1-137-01592-1
  5. ^ a b "Khoekhoe languages". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 15 March 2020.
  6. ^ "Hottentot". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 15 December 2022.
  7. ^ Swingler, Helen (23 September 2020). "UCT launches milestone Khoi and San Centre". UCT News. University of Cape Town. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  8. ^ a b Hagman (1977)
  9. ^ a b c Haacke & Eiseb (2002)
  10. ^ Haacke 1999
  11. ^ Brugman 2009
  12. ^ D. Beach, 1938. The Phonetics of the Hottentot Language. Cambridge.
  13. ^ "Nama". phonetics.ucla.edu. Retrieved 18 October 2020.
  14. ^ Tindal (1858) A grammar and vocabulary of the Namaqua-Hottentot language
  15. ^ "Namibian town's plan to change name to !Nami#nus sparks linguistic debate". thestar.com. 26 February 2015.
  16. ^ a b Haacke, Wilfrid H.G. (2013). "3.2.1 Namibian Khoekhoe (Nama/Damara)". In Vossen, Rainer (ed.). The Khoesan Languages. Routledge. pp. 141–151. ISBN 978-0-7007-1289-2.
  17. ^ Hahn, Michael. 2013. Word Order Variation in Khoekhoe. In Müller, Stefan (Ed.), Proceedings of the 20th International Conference on Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Freie Universita t Berlin, 48–68. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
  18. ^ Khoekhoegowab: 3ǁî xoaigaub. Gamsberg Macmillan, 2003

External links[edit]