Yeyi language

Yeyi (autoethnonym Shiyɛyi) is a 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.

Native toNamibia, Botswana
Regionalong the Okavango River
Native speakers
55,000 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3yey
R.40 (R.41)[2]
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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.[3] It is usually classified as a member of the R Zone Bantu languages. The language has been phonetically influenced by the Ju languages, though it is no longer in contact with them.



Yeyi vowels
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid ɛ ɔ
Open a

Vowel length is also distinctive.

  • Vowel sounds /ɛ ɔ/ are phonetically noted [ɛ̝ ɔ̝].
  • /ɔ/ can also be heard as [ʊ] in word-final position. /i/ can also be heard as [ə] in prefixes.
  • Sounds /i u a/ can be heard as nasalized [ĩ ũ ã] when preceding nasal consonants. A nasal [ɛ̝̃] can also be heard, but only in stem-internal position.
  • Sounds /i u/ can tend to be centralized as [ɨ ʉ] following fricative and sibilant sounds.


Yeyi consonants
Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
plain pal.
Plosive voiceless p t k (ʔ)
aspirated kʰʲ
ejective kʲʼ
voiced b d ɡ ɡʲ
Affricate voiceless ts
aspirated tsʰ tʃʰ
ejective tsʼ tʃʼ
voiced dz
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ h
voiced (β) v z ʒ
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Rhotic ɾ ~ r
Approximant lateral l
central β̞ j w

Other palatalized consonant sounds that can occur are /bʲ ⁿdʲ lʲ/.

  • A glottal stop sound [ʔ] can also occur, but only between vowels.
  • Palatalized-velar stop consonants /kʲ kʰʲ kʲʼ ɡʲ/ may often be heard as palatal stop consonants [c cʰ cʼ ɟ].
  • A labial approximant sound /β̞/ can range from an approximant sound to a fricative sound [β̞ ~ β].
  • An alveolar rhotic consonant /r/ can be heard as a tap or a trill, but can also be heard as a retroflex tap [ɽ].
  • An alveolar lateral consonant /l/ can also be heard as a retroflex lateral [ɭ].[4]
Prenasal consonants
Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Velar Glottal
plain pal.
Plosive voiceless ᵐp ⁿt ᵑk ᵑkʲ
aspirated ᵐpʰ ⁿtʰ ᵑkʰ
ejective ⁿtʼ ᵑkʼ
voiced ᵐb ⁿd ᵑɡ ᵑɡʲ
Affricate voiceless ⁿts ⁿtʃ
aspirated ⁿtsʰ ⁿtʃʰ
voiced ⁿdz ⁿdʒ
ejective ⁿtsʼ
Fricative voiceless ᶬf ⁿs ⁿʃ
voiced ᶬv ⁿz ⁿʒ
  • Prenasal palatalized-velar stop consonants /ᵑkʲ ᵑɡʲ/ may often be heard as prenasal palatal stop consonants [ᶮc ᶮɟ].

Click consonantsEdit

Yeyi clicks[5][4]
Dental Post-
Palatal Lateral
Plosive voiceless plain ᵏǀ ᵏ! ᵏǂ ᵏǁ
aspirated ᵏǀʰ ᵏ!ʰ ᵏǂʰ ᵏǁʰ
nasalized (asp.) ᵑǀʰ ᵑ!ʰ
voiced plain ᶢǀ ᶢ!
nasalized ᵑǀ ᵑ! ᵑǂ ᵑǁ
prenasalized ᵑᶢǀ ᵑᶢ!

Lateral sounds only rarely occur.


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
ᵏǂʰ aspirated
ᵏǂ tenuis
ᶢǂ voiced
ᵑǂ nasal
ŋᶢǂ prenasalized
ᵏǂʼ oral ejective
ᵑǂˀ nasal glottalized
ǂqχ 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 who were not from the core speaking area. The series they found are:

Click Description
ᵏǂʰ aspirated
ᵏǂ tenuis
ᶢǂ voiced
ᵑǂ nasal
ᵏǂʼ oral ejective
ǂqʼ uvular ejective

There are in addition prenasalized clicks such as /ŋᶢǂ/ and /ᵑǂˀ/, 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 ᵏǂʰ. There is similar velar affrication with the dental ejective click among some speakers. The ejective clicks are apparently uvular.[6]

Miller (2011), in a comparative study with other languages, interprets their results as follows,[7]

Click Description
ᵏǂʰ aspirated
ᵏǂ tenuis
ᶢǂ voiced
ᵑǂ nasal
ᵏǂʼ oral ejective
ᵑ̊ǂˀ glottalized nasal
ǂ͡qχ lingual–pulmonic
ǂ͡qχʼ lingual–glottalic

The contrast between ejective 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
ᵏǃʰ aspirated
ᵏǃ tenuis
ᶢǃ voiced
ŋᵏǃʰ prenasalized aspirated
ŋᵏǃ prenasalized tenuis
ŋᶢǃ prenasalized voiced

A Yeyi Talking Dictionary was produced by Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.


  1. ^ Yeyi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  3. ^ Bantu Classification, Ehret, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Seidel (2008).
  5. ^ Fulop et al. (2002).
  6. ^ Fulop, Speech Spectrum Analysis, 2011:160.
  7. ^ Amanda Miller, 2011. "The Representation of Clicks". In Oostendorp et al. eds., The Blackwell Companion to Phonology.

Further readingEdit

  • 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 linksEdit