Yeyi language

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Native to Namibia, Botswana
Region along the Okavango River
Native speakers
55,000 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 yey
Glottolog yeyi1239[2]
R.40 (R.41)[3]
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Yeyi (autoethnonym Shiyɛyi) is an endangered Bantu language spoken by many of the approximately 50,000 Yeyi people along the Okavango River in Namibia and Botswana. Yeyi, influenced by Juu languages, is one of several Bantu languages along the Okavango with clicks. Indeed, it has the largest known inventory of clicks of any Bantu language, with dental, alveolar, palatal, and lateral articulations. Though most of its older speakers prefer Yeyi in normal conversation, it is being gradually phased out in Botswana by a popular move towards Tswana, with Yeyi only being learned by children in a few villages. Yeyi speakers in the Caprivi Strip of north-eastern Namibia, however, retain Yeyi in villages (including Linyanti), but may also speak the regional lingua franca, Lozi.

The main dialect is called Shirwanga. A slight majority of Botswana Yeyi are monolingual in the national language, Tswana, and most of the rest are bilingual.


Yeyi appears to be a divergent lineage of Bantu.[4] It is usually classified as a member of the R Zone Bantu languages.

It has been phonetically influenced by the Ju languages, though it is no longer in contact with them.


Yeyi may have up to four click types, dental ǀ, alveolar ǃ, palatal ǂ, and lateral ǁ. However, the actual number of clicks is disputed, as researchers disagree on how many series of manner and phonation the language contrasts.

Sommer & Voßen (1992) listed the following manners, shown as the palatal series:

Click Description
ǂʰ aspirated
ǂ tenuis
ᶢǂ voiced
ᵑǂ nasal
ŋᶢǂ prenasalized
ǂʔ glottalized
ŋǂʔ nasal 'ejective'
ǂχ uvular fricative
ǂqʼ uvular ejective

The uvular ejective series was uncertain due to infrequency.

Fulop et al. (2002) studied the clicks of a limited vocabulary sample with 13 Yeyi speakers. The series they found are:

Click Description
ǂʰ aspirated
ǂ tenuis
ᶢǂ voiced
ᵑǂ nasal
ǂʔ glottalized
ǂqʼ uvular ejective

There are in addition prenasalized clicks such as /ŋᶢǂ/ and /ŋǂʼ/, but Fulop et al. analyze these as consonant clusters, not single sounds. In addition, a reported uvular affricated click appears to actually be velar, with the affrication a variant of aspiration, and so has been included under ǂʰ. There is similar velar affrication with the dental ejective click among some speakers. The ejective clicks are apparently uvular.[5]

Miller (2011), in a comparative study with other languages, interprets their results as follows,[6]

Click Description
ǂʰ aspirated
ǂ tenuis
ᶢǂ voiced
ᵑǂ nasal
ǂʔ glottalized
ᵑ̊ǂʔ glottalized nasal
ǂ͡qχ lingual–pulmonic
ǂ͡qχʼ lingual–glottalic

The contrast between glottalized and glottalized nasal clicks is unusual, but also occurs in Gǀwi.

Unfortunately, the speakers interviewed were not from the core Yeyi-speaking area, and they often disagreed on which clicks to use. Although the six dental clicks (ǀ etc.) were nearly universal, only one of the lateral clicks was (the voiced click ᶢǁ). The alveolar clicks (ǃ etc.) were universal apart from the ejective, which was only attested from one speaker, but two of the palatal clicks were only used by half the speakers, at least in the sample vocabulary. The missing palatal and lateral clicks were substituted with alveolar or sometimes dental clicks (palatals only), and the missing ejective alveolar was substituted with a glottalized alveolar. Both of these patterns are consistent with studies of click loss, though it is possible that these speakers maintain these clicks in other words. 23 of the 24 possible permutations were attested in the sample vocabulary by at least one speaker, the exception being the ejective lateral click *ǁʼ. This research needs to be repeated in an area where the language is still vibrant.

Seidel (2008) says that Yeyi has three click types, dental ǀ, alveolar ǃ, and, in two words only, lateral ǁ. There are three basic series, tenuis, aspirated, and voiced, any of which may be prenasalized:

Click Description
ǃʰ aspirated
ǃ tenuis
ᶢǃ voiced
ŋǃʰ prenasalized aspirated
ŋǃ prenasalized tenuis
ŋᶢǃ prenasalized voiced


  1. Yeyi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Yeyi". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. Bantu Classification, Ehret, 2009.
  5. Fulop, Speech Spectrum Analysis, 2011:160.
  6. Amanda Miller, 2011. "The Representation of Clicks". In Oostendorp et al. eds., The Blackwell Companion to Phonology.

Further reading

  • Donnelly, Simon S (1990), Phonology and morphology of the noun in Yeeyi. University of Cape Town: BA Honours dissertation.
  • Sean Fulop, Peter Ladefoged, Fang Liu, Rainer Vossen (2002), Yeyi clicks: Acoustic description and analysis.
  • Fulop, Ladefoged, & Voßen (2007), The dying clicks of Yeyi
  • Seidel, Frank (2008), A Grammar of Yeyi: A Bantu Language of Southern Africa. R. Köppe.
  • Sommer, Gabriele (1995). Sozialer Wandel und Sprachverhalten bei den Yeyi (Botswana), Ethnographie des Sprachwechsels. Cologne.

External links