Opinions on Khoisan languages

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"San language" redirects here. For the Mande language spoken in Burkina Faso, see Samo language (Burkina).

The Khoisan languages (/ˈkɔɪsɑːn/; also Khoesan or Khoesaan) are the languages of Africa that have click consonants but do not belong to other language families. For much of the 20th century they were thought to have a genealogical relationship with each other, but this is no longer accepted.

All Khoisan languages but two are indigenous to southern Africa, and belong to three language families, of which the Khoi family appears to have migrated to southern Africa not long before the Bantu expansion. Ethnically, their speakers are the Khoikhoi and the San (Bushmen). Two languages of east Africa, those of the Sandawe and Hadza, are also called Khoisan, although their speakers are ethnically neither Khoikhoi nor San.

Before the Bantu expansion, Khoisan languages, or languages like them, were likely spread throughout southern and eastern Africa. They are currently restricted to the Kalahari Desert, primarily in Namibia and Botswana, and to the Rift Valley in central Tanzania.

Most of the languages are endangered, and several are moribund or extinct. Most have no written record. The only widespread Khoisan language is Khoekhoe ("Nàmá") of Namibia, with a quarter of a million speakers; Sandawe in Tanzania is second in number with some 40–80,000, some monolingual; and the !Kung language of the northern Kalahari is spoken by some 15,000 or so people. Language use is quite strong among the 20,000 speakers of Naro, half of whom speak it as a second language.

Khoisan languages are best known for their use of click consonants as phonemes. These are typically written with letters such as ǃ and ǂ. Clicks are quite versatile as consonants, as they involve two articulations of the tongue which can operate partially independently. Consequently, the languages with the greatest numbers of consonants in the world are Khoisan. The Juǀʼhoan language has 48 click consonants, among nearly as many non-click consonants, strident and pharyngealized vowels, and four tones. The ǃXóõ and ǂHõã languages are even more complex.

Grammatically, the southern Khoisan languages are generally fairly analytic, having several inflectional morphemes, but not as many as in the languages of Tanzania for example.

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