Khoe languages

Khoe languages

Infobox Language family
altname=Central Khoisan (obsolete)
region=Namibia and the Kalahari Desert
fam1=Khoe-Sandawe (tentative)
fam2=Kwadi-Khoe (tentative)
The Khoe languages are the largest of the non-Bantu language families indigenous to southern Africa. They are often considered to be a branch of a suspected Khoisan language family, and are known as Central Khoisan in that scenario. The nearest relative of the Khoe family is the extinct and poorly attested Kwadi language of Angola. This larger group, for which pronouns and some basic vocabulary have been reconstructed, is called Kwadi-Khoe. Beyond that, the nearest relative may be the Sandawe isolate; the Sandawe pronoun system is very similar to that of Kwadi-Khoe, but there are not enough known correlations for regular sound correspondences to be worked out.

The most numerous and only well known Khoe language is Nama of Namibia, also known as Khoekhoegowab or Hottentot. The rest of the family is found predominantly in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana.

The Khoe 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, "Khoekhoe" 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.


Tom Güldemann believes agro-pastoralist people speaking the Khoe-Kwadi proto-language entered modern-day Botswana about 2000 years ago from the northwest (that is, in 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 Damara) continued west, whereas those who settled in the Kalahari absorbed speakers of ǂHoan-Juu languages. Thus the Khoe family proper has ǂHoan-Juu influence. These immigrants were ancestral to the north-eastern Kalahari peoples (Eastern Tshu-Khwe branch linguistically), whereas ǂHoan-Juu neighbors 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. 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.


Language classifications may list one or two dozen Khoe languages. Because many are dialect clusters, there is a level of subjectivity involved in identifying them. Counting each dialect cluster as a unit results in nine languages, not counting two related languages:

1=? Sandawe (c. 40,000 speakers)
label2= Kwadi-Khoe
1=Kwadi (extinct)
label2= Khoe
label1=North Khoekhoe
1=Nama (250,000 speakers)
2=Eini (extinct)

label2=South Khoekhoe
1=Korana (extinct)
2=Xiri (90 speakers, moribund)

label2=Kalahari (Tshu-Khwe)
label1=East Kalahari
1=Shua (6000 speakers)
2=Tsoa (9300 speakers)

label2=West Kalahari
1=Kxoe (11,000 speakers)
2=Naro (14,000 speakers)
3=Gǁana (4500 speakers)

*Nama (ethnonyms Khoekhoen, 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 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 Gǁana proper, Gǀwi, and ǂHaba


*"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 on "Historical linguistics and hunter-gatherer populations in global perspective," at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Aug. 2006p

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