Xhosa language

Native to South Africa, Lesotho
Region Eastern Cape, Western Cape
Ethnicity amaXhosa, amaBhaca
Native speakers
8.2 million (2011 census)[1]
11 million L2 speakers (2002)[2]
Latin (Xhosa alphabet)
Xhosa Braille
Signed Xhosa[3]
Official status
Official language in
South Africa
Language codes
ISO 639-1 xh
ISO 639-2 xho
ISO 639-3 xho
Glottolog xhos1239[4]
Linguasphere 99-AUT-fa incl.
varieties 99-AUT-faa
to 99-AUT-faj +
99-AUT-fb (isiHlubi)

Proportion of the South African population that speaks Xhosa at home
The Xhosa language
Person umXhosa
People amaXhosa
Language isiXhosa
Country kwaXhosa

The Xhosa language (English /ˈkɔːsə/ or /ˈksə/;[6][7][8] Xhosa: isiXhosa [isikǁʰɔ́ːsa]) is a Bantu language with click consonants ("Xhosa" begins with a click) and one of the official languages of South Africa. It is spoken by approximately 7.6 million people, or about 18% of the South African population. Like most other Bantu languages, Xhosa is a tonal language; the same sequence of consonants and vowels can have different meanings, depending on whether it is said with a rising, falling, high or low intonation.

Xhosa is written with the Latin alphabet. Three letters are used to indicate the basic clicks: c for dental clicks, x for lateral clicks and q for post-alveolar clicks (for a more detailed explanation, see the table of consonant phonemes below). Tones are not normally indicated in writing.


Xhosa is the southernmost branch of Nguni languages, which include Swazi, Northern Ndebele[9] and Zulu. There is some mutual intelligibility with other Nguni languages, all of which share many linguistic features.

Nguni languages are, in turn, part of the much larger group of Bantu languages and so Xhosa is related many languages of Africa.[10]

Geographical distribution

Geographical distribution of the Xhosa in South Africa: density of isiXhosa home-language speakers.
  < 1 /km²
  1–3 /km²
  3–10 /km²
  10–30 /km²
  30–100 /km²
  100–300 /km²
  300–1000 /km²
  1000–3000 /km²
  > 3000 /km²
Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa
Sign outside the AmaZink township theatre restaurant in Kayamandi welcoming visitors in Xhosa

Xhosa is the most widely-distributed African language in South Africa, but the most widely spoken African language is Zulu.[10] Xhosa is the second most common home language in South Africa as a whole. As of 2003 approximately 5.3 million Xhosa-speakers, the majority, live in the Eastern Cape, followed by the Western Cape (approximately 2 million), Gauteng (671,045), the Free State (246,192), KwaZulu-Natal (219,826), North West (214,461), Mpumalanga (46,553), the Northern Cape (51,228), and Limpopo (14,225).[11] A minority of Xhosa speakers (18,000) lives in Quthing District, Lesotho.[12]


Xhosa has several dialects. Maho (2009) lists Mpondo (Pondo), Xesibe, Bomwana, Gaika (Ngqika), Gcaleka, Thembu, Mpondomise, Ndlambe, and Hlubi.[5]

Hlubi is the dialect in the former Ciskei; there is the more distinct Hlubi language further north, where Xhosa meets Sotho. Other varieties traditionally considered Xhosa, such as Bhaca, may really be distinct languages.


Spoken Xhosa


Xhosa has an inventory of ten vowels: [a], [ɛ], [i], [ɔ] and [u], all occurring both long and short; they are written a, e, i, o and u.


Xhosa is a tonal language with two inherent, phonemic tones: low and high. Tones are rarely marked in the written language, but they can be indicated a [à], á [á], â [áà], ä [àá]. Long vowels are phonemic but are usually not written except for â and ä, which are the results of gemination of two vowels, both with different tones; they have thus become long vowels with contour tones (â high-low = falling, ä low-high = rising).


Xhosa is rich in uncommon consonants. Besides pulmonic egressive sounds, which are found in all spoken languages, it has 18 clicks (in comparison, Juǀ'hoan, spoken by roughly 10,000 people in Botswana and Namibia, has 48 clicks, and Taa, with roughly 4,000 speakers in Botswana, has 83 click sounds, the largest consonant inventory of any known language). Also, Xhosa has ejectives and an implosive. Although 15 of the clicks also occur in Zulu, they are used less frequently than in Xhosa.

The first six are dental clicks (represented by the letter "c"), made with the tongue on the back of the teeth, and they are similar to the sound represented in English by "tut-tut" or "tsk-tsk" to reprimand someone. The next six are lateral (represented by the letter "x"), made by the tongue at the sides of the mouth, and they are similar to the sound used to call horses. The last six are alveolar (represented by the letter "q"), made with the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth, and they sound somewhat like a cork pulled from a bottle.

The following table lists the consonant phonemes of the language, with the pronunciation in IPA on the left and the orthography on the right:

Labial Dental/Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
central lateral
Click plain [] c [] x [] q
aspirated [kǀʰ] ch [kǁʰ] xh [kǃʰ] qh
slack voice [ɡ̊ǀʱ] gc [ɡ̊ǁʱ] gx [ɡ̊ǃʱ] gq
nasal [ŋǀ] nc [ŋǁ] nx [ŋǃ] nq
slack-voice nasal[13] [ŋǀʱ] ngc [ŋǁʱ] ngx [ŋǃʱ] ngq
glottalised nasal[14] [ŋǀˀ] nkc [ŋǁˀ] nkx [ŋǃˀ] nkq
Plosive tenuis/ejective [pʼ] p [tʼ] t [t̠ʲʼ] ty [kʼ] k
aspirated [pʰ] ph [tʰ] th [t̠ʲʰ] tyh [kʰ] kh
slack voice [b̥ʱ] bh [d̥ʱ] d [d̠̥ʲʱ] dy [ɡ̊ʱ] g
implosive [ɓ] b
Affricate ejective [tsʼ] ts [t̠ʃʼ] tsh [kxʼ] kr
aspirated [tsʰ] ths [t̠ʃʰ] thsh
slack voice [d̥zʱ] dz3 [d̠̥ʒʱ] j
Fricative voiceless [f] f [s] s [ɬ] hl [ʃ] sh [x] rh [h] h
slack voice [v̤] v [z̤] z [ɮ̈] dl [ʒ̈] zh2 [ɣ̈] gr [f] hh
Nasal fully voiced [m] m [n] n [n̠ʲ] ny [ŋ] ng’
slack voice [m̤] mh [n̤] nh [n̤ʲ] nyh [ŋ̈] ngh4
Approximant fully voiced [ɬ] l [j] y [w] w
slack voice [l̤] lh [j̈] yh [w̤] wh
Trill fully voiced [r] r1
breathy voiced [r̤] r1
  1. Two additional consonants, [r] and [r̤], are found in borrowings. Both are spelled r.
  2. Two additional consonants, [ʒ] and [ʒ̈], are found in borrowings. Both are spelled zh.
  3. Two additional consonants, [dz] and [dz̤], are found in loans. Both are spelled dz.
  4. An additional consonant, [ŋ̈] is found in loans. It is spelled ngh.

In addition to the ejective affricate [tʃʼ], the spelling tsh may also be used for either of the aspirated affricates [tsʰ] and [tʃʰ].

The breathy voiced glottal fricative [f] is sometimes spelled h.

The ejectives tend te be elective inly in careful pronunciation or in salient positions and, even then, only for some speakers. Otherwise, they tend to be tenuis (plain) stops. Similarly, the tenuis (plain) clicks are often glottalised, with a long voice onset time, but that is uncommon.

The murmured clicks, plosives and affricates are only partially voiced, with the following vowel murmured for some speakers. That is, da may be pronounced [dʱa̤] (or, equivalently, [d̥a̤]). They are better described as slack voiced than as breathy voiced. They are truly voiced only after nasals, but the oral occlusion is then very short in stops, and it usually does not occur at all in clicks. Therefore, the absolute duration of voicing is the same as in tenuis stops. (They may also be voiced between vowels in some speaking styles.) The more notable characteristic is their depressor effect on the tone of the syllable.[15]

Consonant changes with prenasalisation

Main article: Fortition

When consonants are prenasalised, their pronunciation and spelling may change. The murmur no longer shifts to the following vowel. Fricatives become africated and, if voiceless, they become ejectives as well, at least with some speakers: mf is pronounced [ɱp̪fʼ], ndl is pronounced [ndɮ], n+hl becomes ntl [ntɬʼ], n+z becomes ndz [ndz], etc. The orthographic b in mb is the voiced plosive [mb].

When voiceless clicks (c, x, q) are prenasalised, the silent letter k is added (kc, nkx, nkq) to prevent confusion with the nasal clicks nc, nx, nq.


Xhosa is an agglutinative language, with an array of prefixes and suffixes that are attached to root words. Like in other Bantu languages, Xhosa nouns are classified into morphological classes, or genders (15 in Xhosa), with different prefixes for both singular and plural. Various parts of speech that qualify a noun must agree with the noun according to its gender. Agreements usually reflect part of the original class with which the word agrees. The word order is subject–verb–object, like in English.

The verb is modified by affixes to mark subject, object, tense, aspect and mood. The various parts of the sentence must agree in both class and number.[10]


ukudlala – to play
ukubona – to see
umntwana – a child
abantwana – children
umntwana uyadlala – the child is playing
abantwana bayadlala – the children are playing
indoda – a man
amadoda – men
indoda iyambona umntwana – the man sees the child
amadoda ayababona abantwana – the men see the children


Henry Hare Dugmore, an Englishman who became fluent in Xhosa, jointly produced the first translation of the Bible into the language in 1859
Nelson Mandela was a famous Xhosa speaker.

Xhosa-speaking people have inhabited coastal regions of southeastern Africa since before the 16th century. They refer to themselves as the amaXhosa and their language as isiXhosa.

The Bantu ancestor of Xhosa did not have clicks, which attest to a strong historical contact with a San language that did. An estimated 15% of Xhosa vocabulary is of San origin.[12] In the modern period, Xhosa has also borrowed from both Afrikaans and English.

Role in modern society

The role of African languages in South Africa is complex and ambiguous. Their use in education has been governed by legislation, beginning with the Bantu Education Act of 1953.[10]

At present, Xhosa is used as the main language of instruction in many primary schools and some secondary schools, but is largely replaced by English after the early primary grades, even in schools mainly serving Xhosa-speaking communities. The language is also studied as a subject.

The language of instruction at universities in South Africa is English or Afrikaans, and Xhosa is taught as a subject, both for native and for non-native speakers.

Literary works, including prose and poetry, are available in Xhosa, as are newspapers and magazines. The first printed word in isiXhosa came out in 1823 from the Lovedale Press in the Alice region of the Eastern Cape. But, as with any language, isiXhosa had a rich history of oral traditions from which the society taught, informed, and entertained one another. The first Bible translation was in 1859, produced in part by Henry Hare Dugmore.[12] The South African Broadcasting Corporation broadcasts in Xhosa on both radio (on Umhlobo Wenene FM) and television, and films, plays and music are also produced in the language. The best-known performer of Xhosa songs outside South Africa was Miriam Makeba, whose Click Song #1 (Qongqothwane in Xhosa) and Click Song #2 (Baxabene Ooxam) are known for their large number of click sounds.

In 1996, the literacy rate for first-language Xhosa speakers was estimated at 50%.[12]


Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika is part of the national anthem of South Africa, national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia, and the former anthem of Zimbabwe and Namibia. It is a Methodist hymn written in Xhosa by Enoch Sontonga in 1897. The original stanza was:

Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrika;
Maluphakam' uphondo lwayo;
Yiva imithandazo yethu
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Lord, bless Africa;
May her horn rise high up;
Hear Thou our prayers
Lord, bless us, your family.

Additional stanzas were written later by Sontonga and other writers, with the original verse translated into Zulu, Sotho and Afrikaans, as well as English.

See also


  1. Xhosa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Webb, Vic. 2002. "Language in South Africa: the role of language in national transformation, reconstruction and development." Impact: Studies in language and society, 14:78
  3. Aarons & Reynolds, 2003, "South African Sign Language", in Monaghan, ed., Many Ways to be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities
  4. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Xhosa". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. 1 2 Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  6. "Xhosa – Definition and pronunciation". Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  7. "Xhosa – pronunciation of Xhosa". Macmillan Dictionary. Macmillan Publishers Limited. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  8. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  9. Online Xhosa-English Dictionary Archived 13 April 2004 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. 1 2 3 4 UCLA Xhosa Language Materials Project
  11. South Africa Population grows to 44.8 Million. Archived 22 May 2005 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. 1 2 3 4 Ethnologue report for language code:xho
  13. These are analogous to the slack-voice nasals mh, nh, etc. They are not prenasalized, as can be seen in words such as umngqokolo (overtone singing) and umngqusho in which they are preceded by a nasal.
  14. per Derek Nurse, The Bantu Languages, p 616. Zulu does not have this series.
  15. Jessen & Roux, 2002. Voice quality di4erences associated with stops and clicks in Xhosa

External links

Xhosa edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Look up Xhosa in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Xhosa phrasebook.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Xhosa language.

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