Xhosa – Language of the Eastern Cape

Xhosa is listed amongst South Africa's 11 official languages and is spoken by approximately 18% of the country's population (plus-minus 7.9 million individuals). The language is marked by the large number of click consonant sounds used. Those who speak this language typically form part of the ethnic group called the amaXhosa and refer to their language as isiXhosa. Interestingly, the word Xhosa is from the Khoisan language and means “The angry men”.

The majority of languages which contain clicks originate with the Khoisan languages. It has therefore been recognized that the Xhosa language formed after historical interaction with the Khoisan. Xhosa is categorized as a Bantu language and is representative of the south-western Nguni subfamily group. South Africa is the native land of Xhosa, which is spoken chiefly in the Eastern Cape Province. The Zulu refer to the Eastern Cape as KwaXhosa which is translated to “place of the Xhosa”. Xhosa is also heard in Johannesburg and the Western Cape. As a Bantu language, Xhosa and Zulu people are often able to understand one another. The Xhosa language has been grouped into a number of dialects. Though these are still under debate, one frequently accepted dialect grouping is as follows: Xhosa (original), Bhaca, Gcaleka, Thembu, Mpondomise, Ngqika, Mpondo, Mfengu and Bomvana.

Xhosa is an unusual and attractive sounding language, though difficult to master. Densely populated with uncommon consonants, Xhosa consists of the usual pulmonic egressive sounds (used in English), ejectives, 15 clicks and an implosive. The 15 clicks (which learners tend to battle with the most) are divided into three categories. The first is dental clicks with the tongue pressing against the back of the teeth. This produces something like the English “tut-tut”. The next are the alveolar clicks with the tongue tip and palate. This creates a sound somewhat resembling a cork being pulled out of a bottle. The last is a lateral click with the tongue at the side of the mouth. This click is like the sound people make to call horses. Learning Xhosa is a challenging, but rewarding experience. When visiting the Eastern Cape be sure to ask an amaXhosa to teach you a few phrases, they are certain to be willing to share their unique language with you.

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