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What is Xhosa?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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Xhosa is an African language spoken predominantly in South Africa. It is one of the major languages of the region, spoken by nearly 8 million people, making up almost one-fifth of South Africa’s population. Xhosa had no original alphabet system, and so is written using the Latin alphabet.

The exact history of Xhosa is uncertain. It is part of the Nguni language group, which is in turn a subgroup of the Bantu grouping, which in turn is a part of the larger Niger-Congo family that makes up most of southern Africa. Xhosa appears to have been fairly heavily influenced by contact with various speakers of Khoisan languages.

The most apparent trait to have made its way from Khoisan languages to Xhosa is its use of clicks in words. Although some Khoisan languages make use of a staggering amount of clicks, such as the forty-eight different clicking sounds in Jul ‘hoan, Xhosa makes use of only fifteen. Five of these clicks are dental clicks, five are lateral clicks, and five are alveolar clicks.

The dental clicks in Xhosa are represented in the Latin script by the letter c. These clicks are made by placing the tip of the tongue directly up against the backside of the teeth. The dental clicks are most similar to the familiar English scolding sound of tsk-tsk.

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The lateral clicks in Xhosa are represented in the Latin script by the letter x. These clicks are made by having the tongue touch the roof of the mouth all along one side. This is a similar tongue position to the l sound in English, as can be felt by elongating the first sound of the word “love.” The click made by the lateral click has its best approximation in the English-speaking world as the sound made to call horses.

The alveolar clicks in Xhosa are represented in the Latin script by the letter q. These clicks are made by having the tip of the tongue touching roughly the center of the roof of the mouth. This is a similar tongue position to the t sound at the beginning of the English word “tap.” The sound made by the alveolar click is best described as a sort of cork-popping sound, or the sort of sound one might make to imitate knocking on something hollow.

Each of these positions is capable of making five sounds, depending on the way the air flows. Each sound may be made in the most straightforward way. They may also be made with a nasal tone to them, as in nc, nx and nq. They may also be made by aspirating they, adding a strong puff of air, as in ch, xh, and qh. They may also be made with a breathy voice, in which the vocal cords are held further apart than normal, as in gc, gx, and gq. Lastly, they may be made by using a nasal version of the breathy-voice technique, as in ngc, ngx, and ngq.

Xhosa has been on in the rise in South Africa over the past few decades. It is the primary language in a small number of schools in Xhosa-speaking regions, and is taught as an individual subject in a number of schools throughout the country. Xhosa is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, usually referred to by its more formal name, isiXhosa.

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