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About Xhosa Language

Xhosa (pronounced [ˈkǁʰoːsa] , isiXhosa) is one of the official languages of South Africa. Xhosa is spoken by approximately 7.9 million people, or about 18% of the South African population. Like most Bantu languages, Xhosa is a tonal language, that is, the same sequence of consonants and vowels can have different meanings when said with a rising or falling or high or low intonation. One of the most distinctive features of the language is the prominence of click consonants; The word "Xhosa," the name of the language itself, begins with a click.

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

Affiliation and distribution

Xhosa is the southernmost branch of the Nguni languages, which includes Swati, Northern Ndebele[1] and Zulu. There is some mutual intelligibility with the 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 as such Xhosa is related to languages spoken across much of Africa.

Xhosa is the most widely distributed African language in South Africa, while the most widely spoken is Zulu. Xhosa is the second most common home language in South Africa as a whole. As of 2003[update] the majority of Xhosa speakers, approximately 5.3 million, 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). A minority of Xhosa speakers (18,000) exists in Quthing District, Lesotho.


Xhosa speaking peoples have inhabited coastal regions of southeastern Africa since before the sixteenth century. The members of the ethnic group that speaks Xhosa refer to themselves as the amaXhosa and call their language isiXhosa (isi- is a prefix relating to languages), while the language is most commonly known as "Xhosa" in English.

Almost all languages with clicks are Khoisan languages and the presence of clicks in Xhosa demonstrates the strong historical interaction with its Khoisan neighbours. An estimated 15% of the vocabulary is of Khoekhoe (Khoisan) origin. 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.

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 non-native speakers.

Literary works, including prose and poetry, are available in Xhosa, as are newspapers and magazines. The first Bible translation was in 1859, produced in part by Henry Hare Dugmore.[4] 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 is Miriam Makeba, whose Click Song #1 (Qongqothwane in Xhosa) and Click Song #2 (Baxabene Oxamu) are known for their large number of click sounds.

In 1996[update], the literacy rate for first-language Xhosa speakers was estimated at 50%, though this may have changed dramatically in the years since the abolition of apartheid.

Linguistic features

Xhosa is an agglutinative language featuring an array of prefixes and suffixes that are attached to root words. As in other Bantu languages, Xhosa nouns are classified into fifteen morphological classes (or genders), with different prefixes for singular and plural. Various parts of speech that qualify a noun must agree with the noun according to its gender. These agreements usually reflect part of the original class that it is agreeing with. Constituent word order is Subject Verb Object.

Verbs are modified by affixes that mark subject, object, tense, aspect, and mood. The various parts of the sentence must agree in class and number.


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


Xhosa is a tonal language with two inherent, phonemic tones: low and high. Tones are frequently not marked in the written language, but when they are, they are 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 with different tones each and have thereby become long vowels with contour tones (â high-low = falling, ä low-high = rising).


Xhosa is rich in uncommon consonants. Besides pulmonic egressive sounds, as in English, it has 18 clicks (by way of comparison, the Juǀʼhoan language, spoken by roughly 10,000 people in Botswana and Namibia has 48 clicks, while the ǃXóõ language, with roughly 4,000 speakers in Botswana, has 83 click sounds, the largest consonant inventory of any known language), plus ejectives and an implosive. 15 of the clicks also occur in Zulu, but are used less frequently than in Xhosa.

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


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