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The usual name for the group of languages spoken by the peoples formerly known in the West as Bushmen and Hottentots. The Hottentots are said to call themselves Khoikhoin 'the people' and the Bushmen San. But since there are many different languages in the group, we can't say there is just one Hottentot self-name, nor Bushman. Further, the term San is now understood to be a derogatory Khoikhoin word for them. So a new term for the language group has been adopted, Khoe; and the various people speaking them are Khoi. However, 'Khoe' is also used for one subgroup, also known as Central Khoisan... so perhaps I'd better stick to Khoisan for now.

There is not a single genetic family of these languages, but several, perhaps three; though it is likely that they are all related at a higher level. They have no known affinities with more distant groups, but although almost all Khoi live in Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana (with the !O'!Xuu and extinct Kwadi in Angola), there are two languages in Tanzania called Sandawe and Hadza that are related to them and which have clicks; this indicates the greater spread of the Khoi people before the relatively recent Bantu incursion. In fact, there is some archaeological evidence that the Tanzanian occupation is older than that around the Kalahari. As Hadza and Sandawe are each more distinct from each other than the rest of the group, it also seems that the languages diverged from there. Update, 18 March 2003. See below for a new scientific theory relating this to human evolution.

The famous clicks these languages have, and which have been borrowed into several Bantu languages such as Xhosa and Zulu, are technically ingressive velaric stops. The air-stream is stopped briefly at the back of the mouth while the tongue performs the rest of the click. They are given symbols such as ! / // and =, which may be combined with other consonants. See click for more detail.

See !Kung and /Xam for specific groups who have been noded.

In southern Africa the three families or branches are North, Central, and Southern Khoisan. Central includes the Nama and Damara dialects or Standard Khoekhoe, the most widely spoken Khoisan languages. Most of the languages that were in South Africa are extinct: the interior ones were South Khoisan and the coastal ones Central.

There is a lot of variation in the phoneme inventory, including the richest in the world. Where Nama has a modest 20 clicks, 12 non-click consonants, and 10 simple vowels (monophthongs), the Eastern !Xõõ language has 83 clicks, 43 non-clicks, and 44 monophthongs. Its vowels include nasalized, glottalized, pharyngealized, and breathy ones.


Update, 18 March 2003. I have read in this morning's newspaper of new research combining genetics and linguistics which seems to have important applications to human evolution. This is just a newspaper report, so the following is just an overview until I perhaps find something more precise. As I said above, click languages occur in two widely separated parts of Africa: the south-western tip, that is the area around the Kalahari Desert (Namibia, Botswana, Western Cape); and far off to the north-east in Tanzania.

It has always been a possibility that all the click langauges are related, but if they are, they separated too long ago for it to be clear. The two in Tanzania, Sandawe and Hadza, are very different from each other as well as from the Kalaharian ones. This is a common problem: divergence becomes too much and all remaining similarities are wiped out as the millennia pass. They might be, perhaps, ten thousand years apart, and all reconstructible trace of their ancestry could be gone. But ten thousand years is too short to be relevant to human evolution.

What this new study appears to say is that examination of the phonology, how the clicks are used structurally within the languages, shows that Hadza (or Hadzabe) is indeed related to the Kalaharian group, or specifically to !Kung (or Ju|'hoansi). The similarities are not due to independent invention of the click sounds. That would be an important advance in linguistics if it stood alone.

However, genetic study of the Hadza and the !Kung people, shows no particularly genetic relatedness between them, and in fact they seem to be on distant ends of the evolutionary tree. So either their divergence is of immense antiquity, or the Hadza have been affected by genetic drift from neighbouring peoples. This new study claims to rule out the second possibility, from which they conclude that the existence of click-using speakers is a relic of a great depth in human prehistory, perhaps before modern humans began moving out of Africa.

Apparently some animals being hunted are less disturbed by clicks than by the more familiar speech sounds, so this might indicate their origin. Clicks could have been lost by the majority of humans as hunters moved into regions where the animal conditions were different.

26 September. Here's a link to a bit of a discussion between linguists on this matter, with more details on the possible link to hunting communication: http://linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-2567.html

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