The Khoisan languages (; 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.〔Barnard, A. (1988) 'Kinship, language and production: a conjectural history of Khoisan social structure', ''Africa: Journal of the International African Institute'' 58 (1), 29–50.〕
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.
Khoisan was proposed as one of the four families of African languages in Greenberg's classification (1949–1954, revised in 1963). However, linguists who study Khoisan languages reject their unity, and the name "Khoisan" is used by them as a term of convenience without any implication of linguistic validity, much as "Papuan" and "Australian" are.〔Bonny Sands (1998) ''Eastern and Southern African Khoisan: Evaluating Claims of Distant Linguistic Relationships.'' Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Cologne〕〔Gerrit Dimmendaal (2008) "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent", in ''Language and Linguistics Compass'' 2(5)〕 It has been suggested that the similarities of the Tuu and Kx'a families are due to a southern African Sprachbund rather than a genealogical relationship, whereas the Khoe (or perhaps Kwadi–Khoe) family is a more recent migrant to the area, and may be related to Sandawe in East Africa.〔Güldemann, Tom and Edward D. Elderkin (forthcoming) '(On external genealogical relationships of the Khoe family. )' In Brenzinger, Matthias and Christa König (eds.), ''Khoisan Languages and Linguistics: the Riezlern Symposium 2003.'' Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung 17. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.〕
E.O.J. Westphal is known for his early rejection of the Khoisan language family (Starostin 2003). Bonny Sands (1998) concluded that the family is not demonstrable with current evidence. Anthony Traill at first accepted Khoisan (Traill 1986), but by 1998 concluded that it could not be demonstrated with current data and methods, rejecting it as based on a single typological criterion: the presence of clicks.〔Linguistics 112 lecture, Department of Linguistics, University of the Witwatersrand, March 1998〕 Dimmendaal (2008) summarized the general view with, "it has to be concluded that Greenberg's intuitions on the genetic unity of Khoisan could not be confirmed by subsequent research. Today, the few scholars working on these languages treat the three (groups ) as independent language families that cannot or can no longer be shown to be genetically related" (p. 841). Starostin (2013) accepts a relationship between Sandawe and Khoi is plausible, as is one between Tuu and Kx'a, but sees no indication of a relationship between these two groups or with Hadza.
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