Khoisan languages

"San language" redirects here. For the Mande language spoken in Burkina Faso, see Samo language (Burkina).
Kalahari Desert, central Tanzania
Linguistic classification: (term of convenience)
ISO 639-2 / 5: khi
Glottolog: None


Map showing the distribution of the Khoisan languages (yellow)

The Khoisan languages (/ˈkɔɪsɑːn/; also Khoesan or Khoesaan) are the languages of Africa that have click consonants but do not belong to other language families. For much of the 20th century they were thought to have a genealogical relationship with each other, but this is no longer accepted.

All Khoisan languages but two are indigenous to southern Africa, and belong to three language families, of which the Khoi family appears to have migrated to southern Africa not long before the Bantu expansion.[1] Ethnically, their speakers are the Khoikhoi and the San (Bushmen). Two languages of east Africa, those of the Sandawe and Hadza, are also called Khoisan, although their speakers are ethnically neither Khoikhoi nor San.

Before the Bantu expansion, Khoisan languages, or languages like them, were likely spread throughout southern and eastern Africa. They are currently restricted to the Kalahari Desert, primarily in Namibia and Botswana, and to the Rift Valley in central Tanzania.[2]

Most of the languages are endangered, and several are moribund or extinct. Most have no written record. The only widespread Khoisan language is Khoekhoe ("Nàmá") of Namibia, with a quarter of a million speakers; Sandawe in Tanzania is second in number with some 40–80,000, some monolingual; and the !Kung language of the northern Kalahari is spoken by some 15,000 or so people. Language use is quite strong among the 20,000 speakers of Naro, half of whom speak it as a second language.

Khoisan languages are best known for their use of click consonants as phonemes. These are typically written with characters such as ǃ and ǂ. Clicks are quite versatile as consonants, as they involve two articulations of the tongue which can operate partially independently. Consequently, the languages with the greatest numbers of consonants in the world are Khoisan. The Juǀʼhoan language has 48 click consonants, among nearly as many non-click consonants, strident and pharyngealized vowels, and four tones. The ǃXóõ and ǂHõã languages are even more complex.

Grammatically, the southern Khoisan languages are generally fairly analytic, having several inflectional morphemes, but not as many as in the languages of Tanzania for example.


Khoisan was proposed as one of the four families of African languages in Greenberg's classification (1949–1954, revised in 1963). However, linguists who study Khoisan languages reject their unity, and the name "Khoisan" is used by them as a term of convenience without any implication of linguistic validity, much as "Papuan" and "Australian" are.[3][4] It has been suggested that the similarities of the Tuu and Kx'a families are due to a southern African Sprachbund rather than a genealogical relationship, whereas the Khoe (or perhaps Kwadi–Khoe) family is a more recent migrant to the area, and may be related to Sandawe in East Africa.[1]

E.O.J. Westphal is known for his early rejection of the Khoisan language family (Starostin 2003). Bonny Sands (1998) concluded that the family is not demonstrable with current evidence. Anthony Traill at first accepted Khoisan (Traill 1986), but by 1998 concluded that it could not be demonstrated with current data and methods, rejecting it as based on a single typological criterion: the presence of clicks.[5] Dimmendaal (2008) summarized the general view with, "it has to be concluded that Greenberg's intuitions on the genetic unity of Khoisan could not be confirmed by subsequent research. Today, the few scholars working on these languages treat the three [southern groups] as independent language families that cannot or can no longer be shown to be genetically related" (p. 841). Starostin (2013) accepts a relationship between Sandawe and Khoi is plausible, as is one between Tuu and Kx'a, but sees no indication of a relationship between these two groups or with Hadza.


The putative branches of Khoisan are often considered independent families, in the absence of a demonstration that they are related according to the standard comparative method.

See Khoe languages for speculations on the linguistic history of the region.


Main article: Hadza language

With about 800 speakers in Tanzania, Hadza is no longer seen as a Khoisan language and appears to be unrelated to any other language. Genetically, the Hadza people are unrelated to the Khoisan peoples of Southern Africa, and their closest relatives may be among the Pygmies of Central Africa.


Main article: Sandawe language

There is some indication that Sandawe (about 40,000 speakers in Tanzania) may be related to the Khoe family, such as a congruent pronominal system and some good Swadesh-list matches, but not enough to establish regular sound correspondences. Sandawe is not related to Hadza, despite their proximity.


Main article: Khoe languages

The Khoe family is both the most numerous and diverse family of Khoisan languages, with seven living languages and over a quarter million speakers. Although little Kwadi data is available, proto-Kwadi–Khoe reconstructions have been made for pronouns and some basic vocabulary.

A Haiǁom language is listed in most Khoisan references. A century ago the Haiǁom people spoke a Ju dialect, probably close to ǃKung, but they now speak a divergent dialect of Nama. Thus their language is variously said to be extinct or to have 18,000 speakers, to be Ju or to be Khoe. (Their numbers have been included under Nama above.) They are known as the Saa by the Nama, and this is the source of the word San.


Main article: Tuu languages

The Tuu family consists of two language clusters, which are related to each other at about the distance of Khoekhoe and Tshukhwe within Khoe. They are typologically very similar to the Kx'a languages (below), but have not been demonstrated to be related to them genealogically (the similarities may be an areal feature).


Main article: Kx'a languages

The Kx'a family is a relatively distant relationship formally proposed in 2010.

Other "click languages"

Further information: Languages with clicks

Not all languages using clicks as phonemes are considered Khoisan. Most others are neighboring Bantu languages in southern Africa: the Nguni languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Phuthi, and Northern Ndebele); Sotho; Yeyi in Botswana; and Mbukushu, Kwangali, and Gciriku in the Caprivi Strip. Clicks are spreading to a few additional neighboring languages. Of these languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Yeyi have intricate systems of click consonants; the others, despite the click in the name Gciriku, more rudimentary ones. There is also the South Cushitic language Dahalo in Kenya, which has dental clicks in a few score words, and an extinct and presumably artificial Australian ritual language called Damin, which had only nasal clicks.

The Bantu languages adopted the use of clicks from neighboring, displaced, or absorbed Khoisan populations (or from other Bantu languages), often through intermarriage, while the Dahalo are thought to have retained clicks from an earlier language when they shifted to speaking a Cushitic language; if so, the pre-Dahalo language may have been something like Hadza or Sandawe. Damin is an invented ritual language, and has nothing to do with Khoisan.

These are the only languages known to have clicks in normal vocabulary. Occasionally other languages are said to have "click" sounds. This is usually a misnomer for ejective consonants, which are found across much of the world, or is a reference to paralinguistic use of clicks such as English tsk! tsk!.


  1. 1 2 Güldemann, Tom and Edward D. Elderkin (forthcoming) 'On external genealogical relationships of the Khoe family.' In Brenzinger, Matthias and Christa König (eds.), Khoisan Languages and Linguistics: the Riezlern Symposium 2003. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung 17. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  2. Barnard, A. (1988) 'Kinship, language and production: a conjectural history of Khoisan social structure', Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 58 (1), 29–50.
  3. Bonny Sands (1998) Eastern and Southern African Khoisan: Evaluating Claims of Distant Linguistic Relationships. Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Cologne
  4. Gerrit Dimmendaal (2008) "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent", in Language and Linguistics Compass 2(5)
  5. Linguistics 112 lecture, Department of Linguistics, University of the Witwatersrand, March 1998


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  • Ehret, Christopher. 1986. "Proposals on Khoisan Reconstruction." In African Hunter-Gatherers (International Symposium), edited by Franz Rottland & Rainer Vossen, 105-130. Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, special issue 7.1. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 2003. "Toward reconstructing Proto-South Khoisan." In Mother Tongue 8.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1955. Studies in African Linguistic Classification. New Haven: Compass Publishing Company. (Reprints, with minor corrections, a series of eight articles published in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology from 1949 to 1954.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. The Languages of Africa. (Heavily revised version of Greenberg 1955.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (From the same publisher: second, revised edition, 1966; third edition, 1970. All three editions simultaneously published at The Hague by Mouton Publishers)
  • Güldemann, Tom and Rainer Vossen. 2000. "Khoisan." In African Languages: An Introduction, edited by Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, 99-122. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hastings, Rachel. 2001. "Evidence for the Genetic Unity of Southern Khoesan." In Cornell Working Papers in Linguistics 18, 225-245.
  • Honken, Henry. 1988. "Phonetic Correspondences among Khoisan Affricates." In New Perspectives on the Study of Khoisan, edited by Rainer Vossen, 47-65. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung 7. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1988.
  • Honken, Henry. 1998. "Types of sound correspondence patterns in Khoisan languages." In Language, Identity and Conceptualization among the Khoisan, edited by Mathias Schladt, 171-193. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung/Research in Khoisan studies 15. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
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  • Sands, Bonny. 1998. "Comparison and Classification of Khoisan languages." In Language History and Linguistic Description in Africa, edited by Ian Maddieson and Thomas J. Hinnebusch, 75-85. Trenton: Africa World Press.
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  • Starostin, George. 2008. "From modern Khoisan languages to Proto-Khoisan: The Value of Intermediate Reconstructions." (Originally published in Aspects of Comparative Linguistics 3 (2008), 337-470, Moscow: RSUH Publishers.)
  • Starostin, George. 2013. Languages of Africa: An attempt at a lexicostatistical classification. Volume I: Methodology. Khoesan Languages. Moscow.
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  • Treis, Yvonne. 1998. "Names of Khoisan languages and Their Variants." In Language, Identity, and Conceptualization Among the Khoisan, edited by Matthias Schladt. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe, 463–503.
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  • Vossen, Rainer. 2013. The Khoesan Languages. Oxon: Routledge.
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