Xhosa language

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Native to South Africa, Lesotho
Region Eastern Cape, Western Cape
Ethnicity amaXhosa, amaBhaca
Native speakers
8.2 million (2011 census)[1]
11 million L2 speakers (2002)[2]
Latin (Xhosa alphabet)
Xhosa Braille
Signed Xhosa[3]
Official status
Official language in
South Africa
Language codes
ISO 639-1 xh
ISO 639-2 xho
ISO 639-3 xho
Glottolog xhos1239[4]
Linguasphere 99-AUT-fa incl.
varieties 99-AUT-faa
to 99-AUT-faj +
99-AUT-fb (isiHlubi)
Proportion of the South African population that speaks Xhosa at home
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
The Xhosa language
Person umXhosa
People amaXhosa
Language isiXhosa
Country kwaXhosa

The Xhosa language (English /ˈkɔːsə/ or /ˈksə/;[6][7][8] Xhosa: isiXhosa [isikǁʰɔ́ːsa]) is one of the official languages of South Africa. Xhosa is spoken by approximately 7.6 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" begins with a click.

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


Xhosa is the southernmost branch of the Nguni languages, which include Swati, Northern Ndebele[9] 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.[10]

Geographical distribution

File:South Africa Xhosa speakers density map.svg
Geographical distribution of the Xhosa in South Africa: density of isiXhosa home-language speakers.
Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa
Sign outside the AmaZink township theatre restaurant in Kayamandi welcomes visitors in Xhosa

Xhosa is the most widely distributed African language in South Africa, whereas the most widely spoken is Zulu.[10] Xhosa is the second-most-common home language in South Africa as a whole. As of 2003 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).[11] A minority of Xhosa speakers (18,000) exists in Quthing District, Lesotho.[12]


Xhosa has several dialects. Maho (2009) lists Mpondo (Pondo), Xesibe, Bomwana, Gaika (Ngqika), Gcaleka, Thembu, Mpondomise, Ndlambe, Hlubi.[5]

Hlubi is the dialect in the former Ciskei; there is more distinct Hlubi language further north where Xhosa meets Sotho. Other varieties traditionally considered Xhosa, such as Bhaca, may be distinct languages.


Spoken Xhosa


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 (in comparison, Juǀ'hoan, spoken by roughly 10,000 people in Botswana and Namibia, has 48 clicks, and the Taa 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.

The following table lists the consonant phonemes of the language, giving the pronunciation in IPA on the left, and the orthography on the right:

Labial Dental/Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
central lateral
Click plain [] c [] x [] q
aspirated [kǀʰ] ch [kǁʰ] xh [kǃʰ] qh
slack voice [ɡ̊ǀʱ] gc [ɡ̊ǁʱ] gx [ɡ̊ǃʱ] gq
nasal [ŋǀ] nc [ŋǁ] nx [ŋǃ] nq
slack-voice nasal[13] [ŋǀʱ] ngc [ŋǁʱ] ngx [ŋǃʱ] ngq
glottalised nasal[14] [ŋǀˀ] nkc [ŋǁˀ] nkx [ŋǃˀ] nkq
Plosive tenuis/ejective [pʼ] p [tʼ] t [t̠ʲʼ] ty [kʼ] k
aspirated [pʰ] ph [tʰ] th [t̠ʲʰ] tyh [kʰ] kh
slack voice [b̥ʱ] bh [d̥ʱ] d [d̠̥ʲʱ] dy [ɡ̊ʱ] g
implosive [ɓ] b
Affricate ejective [tsʼ] ts [t̠ʃʼ] tsh [kxʼ] kr
aspirated [tsʰ] ths [t̠ʃʰ] thsh
slack voice [d̥zʱ] dz 3 [d̠̥ʒʱ] j
Fricative voiceless [f] f [s] s [ɬ] hl [ʃ] sh [x] rh [h] h
slack voice [v̤] v [z̤] z [ɮ̈] dl [ʒ̈] zh 2 [ɣ̈] gr [ɦ] hh
Nasal fully voiced [m] m [n] n [n̠ʲ] ny [ŋ] ng’
slack voice [m̤] mh [n̤] nh [n̤ʲ] nyh [ŋ̈] ngh 4
Approximant fully voiced [l] l [j] y [w] w
slack voice [l̤] lh [j̈] yh [w̤] wh
Trill fully voiced [r] r 1
breathy voiced [r̤] r 1
  1. Two additional consonants, [r] and [r̤], are found in borrowings. Both are spelled r.
  2. Two additional consonants, [ʒ] and [ʒ̈], are found in borrowings. Both are spelled zh.
  3. Two additional consonants, [dz] and [dz̤], are found in loans. Both are spelled dz.
  4. An additional consonant, [ŋ̈] is found in loans. It is spelled ngh.

In addition to the ejective affricate [tʃʼ], the spelling tsh may also be used for either of the aspirated affricates [tsʰ] and [tʃʰ].

The breathy voiced glottal fricative [ɦ] is sometimes spelled h.

The ejectives tend to only be ejective in careful pronunciation or in salient positions, and even then only for some speakers; elsewhere they tend to be tenuis (plain) stops. Similarly, the tenuis (plain) clicks are often glottalised, with a long voice onset time, though this is uncommon.

The murmured clicks, plosives, and affricates are only partially voiced, with the following vowel murmured for some speakers. That is, da may be pronounced [dʱa̤] (or, equivalently, [d̥a̤]). They are better described as slack voiced than as breathy voiced. They are only truly voiced after nasals, though then the oral occlusion is very short in stops, and most often does not occur at all in clicks, so that the absolute duration of voicing is the same as in tenuis stops. (They may also be voiced between vowels in some speaking styles.) The more salient characteristic is their depressor effect on the tone of the syllable.[15]

Consonant changes with prenasalisation

When consonants are prenasalised, their pronunciation and spelling may change. Murmur no longer shifts to the following vowel. Fricatives become affricates, and if voiceless, become ejectives as well, at least with some speakers: mf is pronounced [ɱp̪fʼ]; ndl is pronounced [ndɮ]; n+hl becomes ntl [ntɬʼ]; n+z becomes ndz [ndz], etc. The orthographic b in mb is a voiced plosive, [mb].

When voiceless clicks c, x, q are prenasalised, a silent letter k is added – nkc, nkx, nkq – so as to prevent confusion with the nasal clicks nc, nx, nq.


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.[10]

ukudlala – to play
ukubona – to see
umntwana – a child
abantwana – children
umntwana uyadlala – the child plays
abantwana bayadlala – the children play
indoda – a man
amadoda – men
indoda iyambona umntwana – the man sees the child
amadoda ayababona abantwana – the men see the children


Henry Hare Dugmore, an Englishman who became fluent in Xhosa and jointly produced the first translation of the Bible into the language in 1859
Nelson Mandela was a famous Xhosa speaker

Xhosa-speaking people have inhabited coastal regions of southeastern Africa since before the sixteenth century. They refer to themselves as the amaXhosa, and their language as isiXhosa.

The Bantu ancestor of Xhosa did not have clicks, which attest to a strong historical contact with some San language. An estimated 15% of Xhosa vocabulary is of San origin.[12] 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.[10]

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 for non-native speakers.

Literary works, including prose and poetry, are available in Xhosa, as are newspapers and magazines. The first printed word in isiXhosa came out in 1823 from the Lovedale Press in the Alice region of the Eastern Cape. But, as with any language, isiXhosa had a rich history of oral traditions from which the society taught, informed, and entertained one another. The first Bible translation was in 1859, produced in part by Henry Hare Dugmore.[12] 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 was Miriam Makeba, whose Click Song #1 (Qongqothwane in Xhosa) and Click Song #2 (Baxabene Ooxam) are known for their large number of click sounds.

In 1996, the literacy rate for first-language Xhosa speakers was estimated at 50%.[12]


Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika is part of the national anthem of South Africa, national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia, and the former anthem of Zimbabwe and Namibia. It is a Methodist hymn written in Xhosa by Enoch Sontonga in 1897. The original stanza was:

Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrika;
Maluphakam' uphondo lwayo;
Yiva imithandazo yethu
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Lord, bless Africa;
May her horn rise high up;
Hear Thou our prayers
Lord, bless us, your family.

Additional stanzas were written later by Sontonga and other writers, with the original verse translated into Zulu, Sotho and Afrikaans, as well as English.

See also


  1. Xhosa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Webb, Vic. 2002. "Language in South Africa: the role of language in national transformation, reconstruction and development." Impact: Studies in language and society, 14:78
  3. Aarons & Reynolds, 2003, "South African Sign Language", in Monaghan, ed., Many Ways to be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities
  4. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Xhosa". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  6. "Xhosa – Definition and pronunciation". Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 16 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Xhosa – pronunciation of Xhosa". Macmillan Dictionary. Macmillan Publishers Limited. Retrieved 16 April 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  9. Online Xhosa-English Dictionary
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 UCLA Xhosa Language Materials Project
  11. South Africa Population grows to 44.8 Million.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Ethnologue report for language code:xho
  13. These are analogous to the slack-voice nasals mh, nh, etc. They are not prenasalized, as can be seen in words such as umngqokolo (overtone singing) and umngqusho, where they are preceded by a nasal.
  14. per Derek Nurse, The Bantu Languages, p 616. Zulu does not have this series.
  15. Jessen & Roux, 2002. Voice quality di4erences associated with stops and clicks in Xhosa

External links