In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Khoisan Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Proceedings and Collections of Papers
  • Language Contact
  • Dictionaries
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Linguistic Anthropology
  • Text Collections, Archives, and Corpora

Linguistics Khoisan Languages
Alena Witzlack-Makarevich
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0294


The languages traditionally referred to as “Khoisan” languages are spoken in southern and eastern Africa, specifically in the Republic of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, and Tanzania. These languages are famous for the extensive use of click phonemes, a characteristic otherwise found only in a very limited number of non-Khoisan languages worldwide (see Clicks and Language Evolution). About twenty Khoisan languages were spoken in the second half of the twentieth century, and only about a dozen of these languages are still spoken today. Since 2000, the state of description and documentation of Khoisan languages have improved considerably. There is a robust amount of information on many of the languages, and several dozens of scholars are currently engaged in research on all aspects of the languages. In addition to the improved state of documentation in description, major progress has been made in the understanding of genealogical relations between individual Khoisan languages. The currently accepted genealogical classification of the Khoisan languages consists of three families: Khoe-Kwadi, Kx’a, and Tuu, as well as two isolated languages, Hadza and Sandawe. The recent progress has also led to a better understanding of the role of language contact and linguistic areas in shaping the present-day Khoisan languages. In addition, it has produced an improved and more coherent terminology of the Khoisan lineages, branches, and varieties whereby a number of new labels were introduced. This makes the matching of languages’ and varieties’ labels used in individual publications to the labels in use today less than straightforward; for this reason, many comments provide the information on the linguistic variety under study in accordance with the terminology accepted today, as well as indicate to which lineage this variety belongs.

General Overviews

There is a small number of overviews of the Khoisan languages. Güldemann and Voßen 2000 is a short comprehensive overview and is useful as a first introduction to the Khoisan languages. Vossen 2013 is the most comprehensive volume, but it is rather reader-unfriendly, with a lot of inconsistencies. Moreover, as the volume appeared with a great delay, its content did not reflect the state of research at the time of publication. Güldemann 2014 is the most recent overview of the existing varieties. Brenzinger 2013 is a compilation of detailed maps on the geographic distribution of the individual languages. Witzlack-Makarevich and Nakagawa 2018 surveys the typological profiles of Khoisan languages and focuses on a range of phonological and morphosyntactic variables. Earlier overviews, such as Köhler 1981, Winter 1981, and Treis 1998, also exist, but due to the changes in the terminology and massive progress in the status of description and the analysis of genealogical relatedness, these sources are primarily of historical interest; for most purposes, more recent overviews should be consulted instead.

  • Brenzinger, Matthias. 2013. The twelve modern Khoisan languages. In Khoisan languages and linguistics: Proceedings of the 3rd international symposium, July 6–10, 2008, Riezlern/Kleinwalsertal. Edited by Alena Witzlack-Makarevich and Martina Ernszt, 139–161. Research in Khoisan Studies 29. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.

    The paper gives an overview of the geographic distribution, number of speakers, alternative names, genealogical classification. It also lists scholars working on the Khoisan languages spoken today. Supplemented with eight high-quality maps. The title is misleading, as more than twelve Khoisan languages are believed to be spoken today; this discrepancy relates to the problem of language versus dialect differentiation.

  • Güldemann, Tom. 2014. ‘Khoisan’ linguistic classification today. In Beyond ‘Khoisan’: Historical relations in the Kalahari Basin. Edited by Tom Güldemann and Anne-Maria Fehn, 1–41. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Though primarily focusing on the update of the Khoisan genealogical classification, the article also gives a state-of-the-art survey of the inventory of Khoisan languages. It discusses some general terminological principles behind the changes in the labeling of languages and draws comparison to the labels used in earlier publications.

  • Güldemann, Tom, and Rainer Voßen. 2000. Khoisan. In African languages: An introduction. Edited by Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, 99–122. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A useful general overview of Khoisan languages, covering research history, problems of classification, sociolinguistic situation, phonology, and morphosyntax. The overview of the documentation and description state is outdated. Ideal as a brief introduction to Khoisan linguistics, suitable for undergraduates.

  • Köhler, Oswin. 1981. Les langues Khoisan, section 1: Présentation d’ensemble. In Les langues dans le monde ancien et moderne, première partie: Les langues de l’Afrique subsaharienne. Edited by Jean Perrot, 455–482. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

    An outdated overview article in French, primarily of historical interest. For the first time employed the term ǂ’Amkoe currently used to refer to one of the two branches of the Kx’a genus.

  • Treis, Yvonne. 1998. Names of Khoisan languages and their variants. In Language, identity, and conceptualization among the Khoisan. Edited by Mathias Schladt, 463–503. Research in Khoisan Studies 15. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.

    Addresses the reasons for and problems of the massive variation in the Khoisan language and dialects names. Focuses on languages still spoken at the time of publication. Interesting only to specialists who can match the labels to the ones presently in use and neglect the outdated genealogical classifications.

  • Vossen, Rainer, ed. 2013. The Khoesan languages. London: Routledge.

    The most comprehensive volume on Khoisan languages, with contributions of varying quality from nineteen experts. Took almost twenty years to be finalized, and thus outdated before publication (including, e.g., the usage of Greenberg’s labels for the three Khoisan genera and many aspects of the genealogical classification). The sections dedicated to grammar are inconveniently ordered by topic: each author contributed a varying number of subsections in various sections of the volume.

  • Winter, Jürgen C. 1981. Die Khoisan-Familie. In Die Sprachen Afrikas. Edited by Bernd Heine, Thilo C. Schadeberg, and Ekkehard Wolff, 329–374. Hamburg, Germany: Helmut Buske.

    This is an overview article in German. It provides a concordance of earlier language terms and is superseded by more recent overviews.

  • Witzlack-Makarevich, Alena, and Hirosi Nakagawa. 2018. Linguistic features and typologies in languages commonly referred to as ‘Khoisan.’ In The Cambridge handbook of African linguistics. Edited by Ekkehard Wolff, 382–415. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The article provides an overview of the typological profile of the Khoisan languages on the basis of recently published descriptive studies and surveys the current evidence for the genealogical relatedness among the Khoisan languages and other explanations for the similarities among them.

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