The Khoi /ˈkw/[2] KWAY languages are the largest of the non-Bantu language families indigenous to Southern Africa. They were once considered to be a branch of a Khoisan language family, and were known as Central Khoisan in that scenario. Though Khoisan is now rejected as a family, the name is retained as a term of convenience.

Central Khoisan (obsolete)
Namibia and the Kalahari Desert
Linguistic classificationKhoe–Kwadi[1]
  • Khoe

The most numerous and only well-known Khoi language is Khoikhoi (Nama/Damara) of Namibia. The rest of the family is found predominantly in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. The languages are similar enough that a fair degree of communication is possible between Khoikhoi and the languages of Botswana.

The Khoi languages were the first Khoisan languages known to European colonists and are famous for their clicks, though these are not as extensive as in other Khoisan language families. There are two primary branches of the family, Khoikhoi of Namibia and South Africa, and Tshu–Khwe of Botswana and Zimbabwe. Except for Nama, they are under pressure from national or regional languages such as Tswana.

History edit

Tom Güldemann believes agro-pastoralist people speaking the Khoe–Kwadi proto-language entered modern-day Botswana about 2000 years ago from the northeast (that is, from the direction of the modern Sandawe), where they had likely acquired agriculture from the expanding Bantu, at a time when the Kalahari was more amenable to agriculture. The ancestors of the Kwadi (and perhaps the Damara) continued west, whereas those who settled in the Kalahari absorbed speakers of Juu languages. Thus, the Khoe family proper has a Juu influence. These immigrants were ancestral to the north-eastern Kalahari peoples (Eastern Tshu–Khwe branch linguistically), whereas Juu neighbours (or perhaps Kxʼa neighbours more generally) to the southwest who shifted to Khoe were ancestral to the Western Tshu–Khwe branch.

Later desiccation of the Kalahari led to the adoption of a hunter-gatherer economy and preserved the Kalahari peoples from absorption by the agricultural Bantu when they spread south.

Those Khoe who continued southwestwards retained pastoralism and became the Khoekhoe. They mixed extensively with speakers of Tuu languages, absorbing features of their languages. This has resulted in Tuu and Kx'a substrata in the Khoekhoe languages.[3] The expansion of the Nama people into Namibia and their absorption of client peoples such as the Damara and Haiǁom took place in the 16th century and later, at about the time of European contact and colonization.

Classification edit

The nearest relative of the Khoe family may be the extinct Kwadi language of Angola. This larger group, for which pronouns and some basic vocabulary have been reconstructed, is called Khoe–Kwadi. However, because Kwadi is poorly attested, it is difficult to tell which common words are cognate and which might be loans. Beyond that, the nearest relative may be the Sandawe isolate; the Sandawe pronoun system is very similar to that of Khoe–Kwadi, but there are not enough known correlations for regular sound correspondences to be worked out. However, the relationship has some predictive value, for example if the back-vowel constraint, which operates in the Khoe languages but not in Sandawe, is taken into account.

Language classifications may list one or two dozen Khoe languages. Because many are dialect clusters, there is a level of subjectivity involved in separating them. Counting each dialect cluster as a unit results in nine Khoe languages:

North Khoekhoe 
South  Khoekhoe 

Khoemana (Korana, Griqua)

East Kalahari 
West  Kalahari 



? ǂHaba (closest to Naro?)


  • Nama (ethnonyms Khoekhoe, Nama, Damara) is a dialect cluster including ǂAakhoe and Haiǁom
  • Xiri is a dialect cluster also known as Griqua (Afrikaans spelling) or Cape Hottentot.
  • Shua is a dialect cluster including Shwa, Deti, Tsʼixa, ǀXaise, and Ganádi
  • Tsoa is a dialect cluster including Cire Cire and Kua
  • Kxoe is a dialect cluster including ǁAni and Buga
  • Naro is a dialect cluster
  • Gǁana is a dialect cluster including Gǀwi. ǂHaba is often included here, but may be closer to Naro.
  • Tsʼixa: it is not yet clear if Tsʼixa is closest to Shua or to Khoe.

Dozens of names are associated with the Tshu–Khwe languages, especially with the Eastern cluster. These may be place, clan or totem names, often without any linguistically identifiable data. Examples include Masasi, Badza, Didi, and Dzhiki.[4] It is not presently possible to say which languages correspond to which names mentioned in the anthropological literature, though the majority will likely turn out to be Shua or Tshua.[5]

In most of the Eastern Kalahari Khoe languages, the alveolar and palatal clicks have been lost, or are in the process of being lost. For example, the northern dialect of Kua has lost palatal clicks, but the southern dialect retains them. In Tsʼixa, the change has created doublets with palatal clicks vs palatal plosives.

See also edit

Further reading edit

  • Baucom, Kenneth L. 1974. Proto-Central-Khoisan. In Voeltz, Erhard Friedrich Karl (ed.), Proceedings of the 3rd annual conference on African linguistics, 7–8 April 1972, 3-37. Bloomington: Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, Indiana University.

References edit

  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Khoe–Kwadi". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Menan du Plessis (2019) The Khoisan Languages of Southern Africa
  3. ^ Güldemann, Tom (2018). "Historical linguistics and genealogical language classification in Africa". In Güldemann, Tom (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of Africa. The World of Linguistics series. Vol. 11. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 58–444. doi:10.1515/9783110421668-002. ISBN 978-3-11-042606-9. S2CID 133888593.
  4. ^ E. O. J. Westphal, "The Linguistic Prehistory of Southern Africa: Bush, Kwadi, Hottentot, and Bantu Linguistic Relationships", Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 33, no. 3 (Jul. 1963), pp. 237–265.
  5. ^ Yvonne Treis, "Names of Khoisan Languages and their Variants"
  • Güldemann, Tom and Edward D. Elderkin (2010) 'On External Genealogical Relationships of the Khoe Family.' in Brenzinger, Matthias and Christa König (eds.), Khoisan Languages and Linguistics: the Riezlern Symposium 2003. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung 17. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Changing Profile when Encroaching on Hunter-gatherer Territory?: Towards a History of the Khoe–Kwadi Family in Southern Africa. Tom Güldemann, paper presented at the conference Historical Linguistics and Hunter-gatherer Populations in Global Perspective, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Aug. 2006.