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Khoisan: The Clicking Language of Africa

Vijith Menon Mar 15, 2020
Did you know that clicks are sounds actually used as consonants in the African Khoisan language? Get ready to be amazed as we tell you more about this clicking language.

Did You Know?

The linguistic language of the Ungwatsi tribe in the movie 'The Gods Must be Crazy' was influenced by the Khoisan language.
Africa is a cornucopia of language and culture. Not only did most of our ancestors descend from this place, but they derived the language from here too. No wonder the language that was used by our ancestors still exists in the lands of Africa.
The southwestern part of Africa is inhabited by the countries of Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, and parts of South Africa. The residents don't have an English dialect, but instead use vocabulary that includes clicks. Their own names have clicks in them. Generally, the English-speaking residents use clicks to signify disapproval or approval only.
The Khoisan language had evolved from two tribes, mainly the Khoe tribe and the San tribe and is derived as a compound term derived from these two languages. The earliest Khoekhoe-speaking people extended from North Botswana to the Cape.
They were usually hunter-gatherers or people who herded cattle or sheep. These were called 'stutterers' by the Dutch who thought the language was a speech impediment.

Khoisan: Linguistic Classification

The Khoisan languages have been split into five different families, namely the Hadza, Sandawe, Khoe, Tuu, and the Kx'a languages. Many scholars however, consider the three southern languages, namely Khoe, Tuu and Kx'a as genetically unrelated, and thus, as independent families.


Hadza is known for having clicks within smallest grammatical units of the language. It shares a writing system similar to the Sandawe language. Though it has received some attention for describing dead animals, the Hadza didn't count before Swahili was introduced.
Some consider it to be the origin of languages, but this theory was disproved and its classification in the Khoisan languages is also considered ambiguous. It's spoken by 800 speakers in Tanzania.


The language is spoken by 40,000 people of the Dodoma region in Tanzania. The one differentiating factor is that the clicks of the Sandawe are not particularly loud. It is also known as Bushman language, although such a reference is perceived as racist. The writing system is linguistically similar to that of the Zulu and Xhosa language.


It's also known as Taa-ǃKwi. It's a combination of the two languages Taa and !Kwi. The name of the language is derived from the word person which is common to both the languages. The !Kwi branch is extinct with only one language remaining, Nǁng. It has only a dozen speakers left.
The Taa branch, on the other hand, has one surviving language, ǃxóõ, which has 4200 speakers. This language is known for its voiceless clicks.


It's called the Ju-ǂHoan language, which combines both the dialects of the Ju (formerly known as ǃkung) and the ǂHoan language. The only similarity between the two dialects are the bilabial clicks.
The Ju dialects, !Xũ, Ju | hoã, and ǂKx'au ǁ 'eĩ are spoken by 45,000 people in northeastern Namibia, southern Angola and parts of Ngamiland in Botswana. ǂΗuã, a language of southeastern Botswana has fewer than 200 speakers.


The Khoe family has the most diverse group of languages. It has 3 main languages, namely, Nam ,!Ora, and Gri, out of which the last two are deemed extinct. Spoken by three ethnic tribes of Nama, Damara, and Haiǁom, it is the national language spoken in Namibia.
The language is spoken in 3 different tones, with more emphasis on the words than the grammar. The speakers of the Khoekhoe language were referred to as Hottentots by whites in South Africa.
Kxoe, which is closely related to Khoe, is found in the Caprivi Strip, southeastern Angola, and Namibia. The Shua and Tshua groups of languages are spoken in the eastern parts of Botswana. The extinct !Kwi dialects of the Southern group, such as | Xam, ǁXegwi, ǁNg, and |'Auni, were spoken in South Africa.
Only the ǂKhomani language is spoken by a few in the Northern Cape Province. Naro is spoken in the west of Namibia with 10,000 native speakers as of 2013, | Gui and ǁGana are spoken in the west-central area, and Buga and ǁAni are spoken to the north.

Khoisan Language: Examples

Let us see the four core clicks used in the Khoisan language. These have been explained with an example to make it easier to understand.

★ /This denotes a frontal dental click of which /? is a glottal variation, ?/is a nasal variation.

★ ≠This denotes a sharp click made with the tongue against the roof of the mouth.
★ //This denotes a click similar to the sound used to urge a horse.

★ !This denotes a cork popping sound.

In Namibia's Nama language, hara means "swallow," but !hara, with one of many clicks before it, means "check out," while ?hara means "repulse." In the Nama language, the word 'khoe' means person, which can change if, khoe-s (woman) and khoe-b (man).

Sample text of Khoekhoe

ǂKam ǃũi-aob gye ǁẽib di gūna ǃhomi ǃna gye ǃũi hã i. ǀGui tsēb gye ǃgare-ǀuiï di ǃkhareï ei heiï di somi ǃna gye ǂnõa i, tsĩb gye ǁom tsĩ sĩgurase gye ǃgan-tana, tanaba ra ǃhororose.
Translation: One day a young shepherd was watching his sheep on a mountainside. While he was sitting on a rock in the shade of a tree, his head nodded forward and fell asleep.
Some other languages that are spoken with clicks but are not considered a part of the Khoisan family are Zulu and Xhosa. Although Xhosa is closely related to Swahili, Ndebele and Zulu, and spoken in cities of Eastern Cape Province, Orange Free State, Ciskei and Transkei in South Africa.
Zulu is spoken in the KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa and is one of the 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. One of the well-known speakers of this language is Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa.
One might wonder why the English language doesn't have as many clicks as the African languages. Guess that in the process of evolution, we sacrificed sounds for words and adopted this new form of communication.