Ah … Xhosa!
We’ve made it to one of the few African languages in the blog, and without a doubt one of the most interesting ones. Also known as isiXhosa to its roughly 8 million speakers, the Bantu language is spoken almost exclusively in South Africa. Xhosa is also a tonal language, with a rising tone and a falling tone.
One thing you might not know about Xhosa is that it is one of the languages with the famous “clicking” sounds. More on that later, though.
REGIONAL HISTORY: According to Wikipedia, the Xhosa people have been living in South Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. Comparitively, the arrival of Europeans (Portuguese first) in the 15th century sort of seems like a blip. As Dutch settlers made it there around the 1600s, they clashed with the natives, including the Xhosa people. The Dutch, known as Boers, established the Cape of Good Hope, although this would be taken over by the British a century and a half later.
The British settlements forced the Dutch to move elsewhere, who founded several states. The British and Boers would continue to clash in the First and Second Boer Wars in the late 1800s, which would further force native peoples out of their territories with no control. Eventually all independent states were unified in 1910, with British control. The National Party would take control in 1948, intensifying African and European segregation through implementation of apartheid. For many years, apartheid would undermine the progress of Black Africans, including Xhosa, until its ban in the 1990s. The later half of the 20th century also saw the rise of power of the African National Congress, another political party supported by Blacks, and the installation of Nelson Mandela as president, South Africa’s first Black president, who just happens to be a famed Xhosa speaker.
WRITING SYSTEM: Xhosa uses a Latin alphabet. The Bible was translated into Xhosa in 1859 by Henry Hare Dugmore, a British missionary. As mentioned before, Xhosa has clicking sounds, which make up the consonants. “C” consonants are dental clicks formed by placing the tongue on the teeth and pulling away, as if sucking air; “X” consonants are lateral clicks, formed by placing the tongue at the side of the mouth (think of a “ch” sound you would use to call an animal); and lastly “Q” consonants are post-alveolar clicks, formed by placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth (a popping cork sound). There are only ten vowels: long and short forms of a, e, i, o, u.
And here is the Xhosa alphabet. A great deal of the consonant and vowels sound like English ones, but there are plenty that don’t.* Below: dental clicks are red, lateral click are blue and post-alveolar clicks are green.
a (long or short)
e (long or short)
i (long or short)
o (long or short)
u (long or short)
*I’m still looking for the pronunciation of the specialized consonants, so this part may be edited.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Xhosa is really complex and interesting, just like the Indo-European languages, if not more so. The click are very hard for me to pick up, but really fun to try! I was able to do the “c” and “x” clicks, but I’m still having trouble with the “q” one.
Xhosa is an agglutinative language, which means prefixes and suffixes galore. That could cause some problems. There’s also grammatical gender too. But the hardest part for me would likely be learning the sounds, by far. Despite that, the tonal aspect doesn’t seem that difficult, though. They seem similar to stressed and unstressed syllables in English.
Until then, enjoy this wonderful video of famous Xhosa singer Miriam Makeba aka Mama Afrika, performing “The Click Song” on Swedish television in the 1960s!