Khoekhoe language

Native to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa
Region Orange River, Great Namaland, Damaraland
Ethnicity Khoikhoi, Nama, Damara, Haiǁom
Native speakers
±300,000 (253 000 in Namibia) (2016)[1]
  • Khoekhoe
    • Khoekhoe
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
naq  Khoekhoe, Nama
hgm  Haiǁom
Glottolog nort3245  Subfamily: North Khoekhoe[2]
nama1264  Language: Nama[3]
haio1238  Language: Haiǁom[4]
The distribution of the Nama language in Namibia.
The Khoe language
Person Khoe-i
People Khoekhoen
Language Khoekhoegowab

The Khoekhoe language /ˈkɔɪkɔɪ/, Khoekhoegowab, also known by the ethnic term Nama /ˈnɑːmə/[5] and formerly as Hottentot, is the most widespread of those non-Bantu languages of southern Africa that contain "click" sounds and have therefore been loosely classified as Khoisan. It belongs to the Khoe language family, and is spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa by three ethnic groups, the Nama, Damara, and Haiǁom.

It appears that the Damara picked up the language along with the Nama in Botswana, and that they migrated to Namibia separately from the Nama . The Haiǁom, who had spoken a Juu language, later shifted to Khoekhoe. The name for Nama speakers, Khoekhoen, is from the Nama word khoe "person", with reduplication and the suffix -n to indicate the plural . Georg Friedrich Wreede was the first European to study the language, after arriving in Cape Town in 1659 .

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 . 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 .

  • Eini (extinct) is also close but is now generally counted as a distinct 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[6] or four[7][8][9] 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/).[6]

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:[7]

ǃ̃ˀȍm̀sǃ̃ˀòm̏sbutting, hitting s.t.low
ǃ̃ˀȍḿsan udderlow rising
ǃ̃ˀòm̀sforcing out of a burrowmid
ǃ̃ˀòm̋sǃ̃ˀòm̀sa pollardhigh rising
ǃ̃ˀóm̀sǃ̃ˀóm̏scoagulating, prizing out [a thorn]low falling
ǃ̃ˀőḿsǃ̃ˀóm̀sa fisthigh 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.


Nasal mn
Plosive p ~ βt ~ ɾkʔ
Affricate t͜sʰk͜xʰ
Fricative sxh

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)[10] reported that the Khoehkoe 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.[11]

accompanimentaffricated clicks'sharp' clicksstandardised
(with "ǃ")
Tenuis ǀǁǃǂǃg
Aspirated ǀʰǁʰǃʰǂʰǃkh
Nasal ᵑǀᵑǁᵑǃᵑǂǃn
Voiceless aspirated nasal ᵑ̊ǀʰᵑ̊ǁʰᵑ̊ǃʰᵑ̊ǂʰǃh
Glottalized nasal ᵑ̊ǀˀᵑ̊ǁˀᵑ̊ǃˀᵑ̊ǂˀǃ

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".[12]


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.

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'.


Nama has a subject–object–verb word order, three nouns classes (masculine/gu-class, feminine/di-class and neutral/n-class) and three grammatical numbers (singular, dual and plural). Gu-class and Di-class nouns have separate singular, dual and plural number affixes; while N-class nouns only have singular and plural number suffixes.

Singular Dual Plural Gloss
Feminine/Di-class piris pirira piridi goat
Masculine/Gu-class arib arikha arigu dog
Neutral/N-class khoe-i n/a khoen people

Khoekhoe distinguishes between inclusive and exclusive 1st person plural pronouns. Sida is the exclusive form for we, it only includes a specific group; as opposed to sada, which is inclusive and refers to all.

Sample text

Following is a sample text in the Khoekhoe language.[13]

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

  • ǃGâi tsēs – Good day
  • ǃGâi ǁgoas – Good morning
  • ǃGâi ǃoes – Good evening
  • Matisa – How are you?
  • ǃGâise ǃgû re – Goodbye
  • ǃHaese mûgus – See you soon


  • 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.


  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). "Subfamily: 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). "Language: Nama". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Language: Haiǁom". 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. 1 2 Hagman (1977)
  7. 1 2 Haacke & Eiseb (2002)
  8. Haacke 1999
  9. Brugman 2009
  10. D. Beach, 1938. The Phonetics of the Hottentot Language. Cambridge.
  11. Tindal (1858) A grammar and vocabulary of the Namaqua-Hottentot language
  12. Khoekhoegowab: 3ǁî xoaigaub. Gamsberg Macmillan, 2003
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