Nǁng language

Nǁng [ᵑǁŋ] or Nǁŋǃke, commonly known by the name of its dialect Nǀuu (Nǀhuki), is a moribund Tuu (Khoisan) language once spoken in South Africa. It is no longer spoken on a daily basis, as the speakers live in different villages. The dialect name ǂKhomani is used for the entire people by the South African government, but the descendants of ǂKhomani-dialect speakers now speak Khoikhoi. As of June 2021, only one speaker of the Nǀuu dialect[3] and two of the ǁʼAu dialect remain.

Native toSouth Africa
Region2 speakers in Olifantshoek, 3 in Upington in 2013[1]
Ethnicity500 Nǁnǂe (ǂKhomani)[2]
Native speakers
3 (2021)[1][3]
  • ǃKwi
    • Nǁng
  • Nǀuu
  • ǁʼAu
  • ǂKhomani
Language codes
ISO 639-3ngh
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Classification and nameEdit

Nǁng belongs to the Tuu (Taa–ǃKwi) language family, with extinct ǀXam being its closest relative and Taa its closest living relative.

The two recent dialects are Nǀuu (Nǀhuki) and ǁʼAu (ǁKhʼau). Extinct dialects include ǂKhomani and Langeberg. ǂKhomani had been recorded by Doke and by Maingard, Nǀhuki by Weshphal, and Langeberg by Dorothea Bleek.[4] As of 2010, most remaining speakers spoke Nǀuu dialect, and this was the name Nǁng appeared under when it was rediscovered. However, two spoke ǁʼAu and rejected the label Nǀuu.

Of the names Nǀuu, ǁʼAu, and Nǁng, the easiest for English speakers to pronounce is Nǀuu. The letter that looks like a vertical bar (sometimes carelessly substituted with a slash) represents a dental click like the English interjection tsk! tsk! (tut! tut!) used to express pity or shame, but nasalized; "Nǀuu" is pronounced like noo, with a tsk! in the middle of the [n]. The double-vertical-bar in "Nǁng" is a (single) lateral click, pronounced like the tchick! used to spur on a horse; the name is pronounced like the ng of sung with this click in it.

The word nǀuu /ᵑǀùú/ is actually a verb, 'to speak Nǀuu'. The people call themselves Nǁŋ-ǂe /ᵑǁŋ̀ŋ̀ ǂé/ 'people', and Westphal believes this may be the term recorded by Bleek and variously rendered in the literature as ǁNg ǃʼe, ǁn-ǃke, ǁŋ.ǃke.[5]

The name Nǀusan is an ambiguous Khoekhoe exonym, and is used for several Tuu languages. Traill says that the ǀʼAuni call their language Nǀhuki, but others have recorded their name for their language as ǀʼAuo, and both Westphal and Köhler state that Nǀhuki (Nǀhuci, nǀɦuki) is a variety of Nǁng. It is not clear if both are correct or if languages have gotten mixed up in the literature.[6]


Nǁng prospered through the 19th century, but encroaching non-ǃKwi languages and acculturation threatened it, like most other Khoisan languages. The language was mainly displaced by Afrikaans and Nama, especially after speakers started migrating to towns in the 1930s and found themselves surrounded by non-Nǁng-speaking people. In 1973 their language was declared extinct, and the remaining Nǁnǂe ("ǂKhomani") were evicted from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park.

In the 1990s, linguists located 101-year-old Elsie Vaalbooi, who could still speak Nǁng. Anthony Traill interviewed her in 1997. The South African San Institute soon became involved in the pursuit of information on the Nǁng language, and with the help of Vaalbooi they tracked down 25 other people scattered by the eviction who were able to speak or at least understand the language. Thabo Mbeki handed over 400 km2 of land to the Nǁnǂe in 1999, and 250 km2 of land within the park in 2002. Vaalbooi came up with the Nǁng motto of Sa ǁʼa ǃainsi uinsi "We move towards a better life" for her rehabilitated people. This was also adopted as the official motto for the Northern Cape Province. At the time there were twenty elderly speakers, eight of whom lived in the Western Cape province signed over to them. As of 2007, fewer than ten are still alive in South Africa, and a few more in Botswana; none live with another speaker, and their daily languages are Khoekhoe and Tswana, respectively. The younger generations of ǂKhomani are proud Nama speakers, and have little affinity to Nǁng, so there is little chance of saving the language.

Recent research on Nǁng led by Amanda Miller of Cornell University has helped describe the physics of its clicks, leading to a better understanding of click sounds in general.[7]

Efforts to perpetuate the Nǁng language continue in 2017[8] and in 2021.[9] The first children's book, !Qhoi n|a Tjhoi (Tortoise and Ostrich), was written by Katriena Esau, one of the two surviving speakers at the time, in May 2021.[10] In October 2022, the Dutch NOS referred to Katrina Esau, or "Oma Katrina", as the last speaker of Nǀuu. She was teaching the language to a group of children, including her grandson and great-grandson, all speakers of Afrikaans.[11]


Nǁng has one of the more complex sound inventories of the world's languages. Most lexical words consist of a phonological foot with two moras (tone-bearing units). The first mora must start with a consonant (CV). The second mora may be a single vowel (V), a nasal consonant m or n (N), or one of a drastically reduced number of consonants plus a vowel (cV). That is, lexical roots, not counting sometimes lexicalized CV prefixes and suffixes, are typically CVcV, CVV, CVN, though there are also a few which are CV, as well as longer words of two phonological feet: CVCV, where the second C is not one of the reduced set of consonants but cannot be a click,[12] CVCVN, CVVCV, CVNCV, CVVCVN, CVNCVN, CVcVCV, CVVCVcV. Grammatical words tend to be CV or V.[13]

There are occasional exceptions to these patterns in ideophonic words such as /ɟùɾùkúɟúí-sí/ 'Namaqua sandgrouse' (CVcVCVCVV + suffix) and historically reduplicated words with clicks such as /ǁáḿǁàm̀/ 'to talk'.


Like most languages in southern Africa, Nǁng has five vowel qualities. These may occur strident and nasalized. A word may have two adjacent vowels, which resemble a long vowel or diphthong.

The strident vowels are thought to have the phonation called harsh voice. They are strongly pharyngealized, and for some speakers involve low-frequency trilling that presumably involves the aryepiglottic fold. The four strident vowel qualities (there is no strident i) are rather different from the non-strident vowels, as is common when a vowel is pharyngealized.

High front Mid front Low central Mid back High back/central
Modal i [i̞] e [e̞] a [ä] o [o̞] u [u̽]
Nasal ĩ [ĩ̞] ẽ [ẽ̞] ã [ä̃] õ [õ̞] ũ [u̽̃]
Strident[14] eʢ [ɛ̰̰] aʢ [ɑ̟̰̰] oʢ [ɔ̟̰̰] uʢ [ɵ̰̰]
Nasal strident (?) ãʢ [ɑ̟̰̰̃] õʢ [ɔ̟̰̰̃] ũʢ [ɵ̰̰̃]

Nǁng is the only Khoisan language known to have a strident front vowel, /eˤ/, though this is rare, occurring in only two known words, /zḛ̰́é/ 'to fly' and /ᵑ̊ǂḛ̰̀βé/ 'loincloth'. The lack of a nasalized equivalent is thought to be an accidental gap or simply unattested due to the small number of known words.

The tone-bearing segment may be a syllabic nasal, /ŋ̍/, rather than a vowel, as in the name Nǁng.

Only certain sequences of vowels may occur in a bimoraic foot, regardless of whether there is an intervening consonant. (That is, the permitted vowels are the same whether a word is CVcV or CVV.) If the first vowel is any variety (nasal, strident, etc.) of /i, e, ŋ̍/, then the second vowel must be identical. If the first vowel is /a/, then the second may be anything but /ŋ̍/. If the first vowel is /o/ or /u/, then the second may be either /a/ or a vowel of the same height: that is, oa, oo, oe; ua, uu, ui. The vowels must be both oral or both nasal; nasal vowels cannot follow a nasal stop (though they may follow nasal clicks). Only the first vowel may be strident.

Front vowels can only follow the click types ǀ and ǂ (the back-vowel constraint), with a single known exception, ᵑǁˀé 'to go'. Front vowels and strident vowels may also not follow [χ], whether an affricate release or a fricative, with the exception of three female kin terms where the second syllable is /χè/. As with the lack of strident front vowels, there are thus a small number of exceptions for these constraints with /e/, but none with /i/.


Nǁng moras may carry a high or low tone, /H/ or /L/. A typical lexical word consists of two moras, and so may have a high (HH), low (LL), rising (LH), or falling (HL) tone.

Monomoraic lexical roots, such as /cú/ 'mouth', are high- rather than low-tone by a 5–1 margin. CVV and CVN roots are HH, HL, and LH with about equal frequency, with LL slightly less common. However, half of all CVcV roots are LH, making it markedly frequent, while only 5% are HL. In an additional CV foot the distribution of H and L is approximately equal; an additional CVN or CVcV foot may pattern like an initial foot, but they are too infrequent to be sure.


The majority of Nǁng consonants are clicks. It was once thought that Khoisan languages distinguish velar and uvular clicks, but recent research into Nǁng, and reevaluation of the data on ǃXóõ, indicates that, for these languages at least, the distinction is one of pure clicks versus click–plosive contours.

Initial pulmonic consonants (C1)
Bilabial Laminal
Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m (n) ɲ̟
Plosive aspirated c̟ʰ
voiceless p k ʔ
voiced b ɟ̟ ɡ
Affricate voiceless pf ts c̟x
Fricative voiceless s χ h
voiced z

"(?)" marks possible accidental gaps; these consonants might be expected based on their occurrence in neighboring languages with similar phonologies, but are expected to be rare, and may occur in Nǁng words that have not been recorded.

What were historically initial alveolar occlusives have become pre-palatal in lexical words. Among grammatical words in Nǀuu dialect there is a single exception, 'I'; in ǁʼAu dialect even that has merged, for ɲá 'I'.

Reduced medial consonants (C2)
Bilabial Alveolar
Nasal m n
Oral (central) β ɾ
Lateral l

Only sonorants may occur as the medial consonant of a phonological foot. /l/ is only known from three words. The oral sonorants do not occur in initial position.

Glottalic consonants (C1)
Bilabial Laminal
Affricate t͡sʼ k͡xʼ
Lingual consonants (C1)
Alveo- uvular Palato-
central lateral
Nasal voiced ᵑʘ ᵑǀ ᵑǃ ᵑǁ ᵑǂ
glottalized ᵑʘˀ ᵑǀˀ ᵑǃˀ ᵑǁˀ ᵑǂˀ
aspirated ᵑʘʰ ᵑ̊ǀʰ ᵑ̊ǃʰ ᵑ̊ǁʰ ᵑ̊ǂʰ
Plosive voiced ᶢʘ ᶢǀ ᶢǃ ᶢǁ ᶢǂ
tenuis ᵏʘ ᵏǀ ᵏǃ ᵏǁ ᵏǂ
aspirated ᵏʘʰ ᵏǀʰ ᵏǃʰ ᵏǁʰ ᵏǂʰ

These are simple clicks. The traditional term "velaric" is something of a misnomer, for the rear articulation is further back than the velum, and indeed further back than Nǁng /q/. Miller et al. prefer the term "lingual" for this airstream mechanism; they also reject the existence of click "accompaniments", using the IPA symbols to represent both points of articulation rather than solely the anterior articulation. Besides being motivated phonetically, this has the benefit of better illustrating the parallels between clicks and pulmonic consonants.

In the above rubric, the first element of the name is the forward articulation, and the second is the rear articulation.

Linguo-pulmonic consonants
Alveo-uvular Palato-
central lateral
Plosive tenuis ʘ͡q ǀ͡q ǃ͡q ǁ͡q ǂ͡q
aspirated (?) ǀ͡qʰ ǃ͡qʰ ǁ͡qʰ ǂ͡qʰ
voiced (?) ǀ͡ɢ (?) (?) (?)
Affricate ʘ͡qχ ǀ͡qχ ǃ͡qχ ǁ͡qχ ǂ͡qχ

These are airstream contour consonants, which start off with a lingual (velaric) airstream mechanism and finish with a pulmonic airstream (whereas affricates are manner contour consonants, starting as plosives and finishing as fricatives). Traditionally, these were considered to be uvular clicks, because the uvular or pharyngeal closure is audible, but in fact the rear closure of all Nǁng clicks is uvular or pharyngeal. (The distinction between uvular and pharyngeal is not represented here.) Effectively, in these clicks the release of the rear articulation is delayed, so that there is a double release burst, the forward (lingual) release followed by the rear (pulmonic) release.

Linguo-glottalic consonants
Alveo-uvular Palato-
central lateral
Plosive ʘ͡qʼ ǀ͡qʼ ǃ͡qʼ ǁ͡qʼ ǂ͡qʼ
Affricate (?) ǀ͡χʼ ǃ͡χʼ ǁ͡χʼ ǂ͡χʼ

These differ from the previous consonants in that the second, rear release is an ejective.


  1. ^ a b N//ng at Endangered Languages.com
  2. ^ Menan du Plessis (2019) The Khoisan Languages of Southern Africa
  3. ^ a b TimesLIVE (7 June 2021). "One of only two people who spoke SA's ancient Nluu language has died". SowetanLIVE, Parktown, Johannesburg, South Africa. Retrieved 8 June 2021.
  4. ^ Güldemann (2011)
  5. ^ Distinguish Nǀhuǁéi, which is a variety of Taa, and ǁŨǁʼe, which is related to Seroa.
  6. ^ Yvonne Treis, 1998, "Names of Khoisan Languages and their Variants"
  7. ^ "Classifying "Clicks": New language technology clears up 100-year-old mystery". NSF. 14 July 2009. Retrieved 29 July 2009.
  8. ^ "Trying to save South Africa's first language". BBC News. 30 August 2017.
  9. ^ "The struggle to save a South African language with 45 click sounds". The Economist. 22 May 2021. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  10. ^ "Historic: Launching the first-ever N/uu language children's book". 702. Retrieved 10 June 2021.
  11. ^ van Gelder, Elles (5 October 2022). "Oma Katrina wil als laatste spreker de oude taal NIuu redden" (in Dutch). Nederlandse Omroep Stichting. Retrieved 5 October 2022.
  12. ^ The most common consonants in this position are glottal stop, /c/, and /k/.
  13. ^ Mats Exter, 2008 [2012], Properties of the Anterior and Posterior Click Closures in Nǀuu, dissertation, University of Cologne
  14. ^ These are often written with a superscript ⟨ʢ⟩.


External linksEdit