Khoekhoe language

Native toNamibia, Botswana and South Africa
RegionOrange River, Great Namaland, Damaraland
EthnicityKhoikhoi, Nama, Damara, Haiǁom
Native speakers
200,000 ± 10,000 (2011)[1]
  • Khoekhoe
    • Khoekhoe
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
naq – Khoekhoe, Nama
hgm – Haiǁom
Glottolognort3245  Subfamily: North Khoekhoe[2]
nama1264  Language: Nama[3]
haio1238  Language: Haiǁom-Akhoe[4]
Nama-Damara taalkaartje NL.png
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/ language (Khoekhoegowab), also known by the ethnic terms Nama (Namagowab) /ˈnɑːmə/,[5] Damara (ǂNūkhoegowab), or Nama/Damara[6][7] and formerly as Hottentot,[a] 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 now defunct grouping. 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.[citation needed] 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, where it is used for teaching up to the university level as well as in the public administration.[citation needed] In Namibia and South Africa, state-owned broadcasting corporations produce and broadcast radio programmes in Khoekhoegowab.


Modern scholars generally see three dialects:

They are distinct enough that they might be considered two or three distinct languages[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 /ĩ 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 (/í ú/) or on a nasal (/ń ḿ/) than on mid or low vowels (/é 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.


Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive p ~ β t ~ ɾ k ʔ
Affricate t͜sʰ k͜xʰ
Fricative s x 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
(with "ǃ")
Tenuis ǀ ǁ ǃ ǂ ⟨ǃg⟩
Aspirated ǀʰ ǁʰ ǃʰ ǂʰ ⟨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, -ts, -s 2/


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. W is only used between vowels, though it may be replaced with b or p according to melody. 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

PGN Markers[]

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.

Nominative PGN markers[]

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

Object PGN markers[]

(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

Oblique PGN markers[]

(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):

ti si sa ǁî
+definite +definite +definite +definite
+speaker +speaker +addressee +discussed
+human -addressee +human
+singular +human

Clause Headings[]

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[]

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[]



  1. ^ The term was applied to Cape Khoekhoe in particular.[7]


  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. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "North Khoekhoe". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Nama (Namibia)". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hai//om-Akhoe". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ a b "Khoekhoe languages". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 15 March 2020.
  8. ^ a b Hagman (1977)
  9. ^ a b Haacke & Eiseb (2002)
  10. ^ Haacke 1999
  11. ^ Brugman 2009
  12. ^ D. Beach, 1938. The Phonetics of the Hottentot Language. Cambridge.
  13. ^ [1]
  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". 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 Mu ̈ller, Stefan (Ed.), Proceedings of the 20th International Conference on Head-Driven Phrase Struc- ture Grammar, Freie Universita ̈t Berlin, 48–68. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
  18. ^ Khoekhoegowab: 3ǁî xoaigaub. Gamsberg Macmillan, 2003

External links[]