!Kung language

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Native toNamibia, Angola, South Africa,[1] Botswana[2]
Native speakers
20,200 (2013)[2]
  • !Kung
Language codes
ISO 639-3Variously:
knw – Ekoka !Kung
vaj – Sekele
ktz – Juǀʼhoansi
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!Kung /ˈkʊŋ/ (!Xuun), also known as Ju,[nb 1] is a dialect continuum (language complex) spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola by the ǃKung people. Together with the ǂHoan language, it forms the proposed Kx'a language family. !Kung constituted one of the branches of the putative Khoisan language family, and was called Northern Khoisan in that scenario, but the unity of Khoisan has never been demonstrated and is suspected to be spurious. Nonetheless, the term "Khoisan" has been retained as an umbrella term for click languages in general.[5]

!Kung is famous for having a large number of clicks, such as the ǃ in its name, and has some of the most complex inventories of both consonants and vowels in the world. It also has tone. For a description, see Juǀʼhoansi. To pronounce !Xuun (pronounced [!͡χũː˦˥] in Western !Kung/!Xuun) one makes a click sound before the x sound (which is like a Scottish or German ch), followed by a long nasal u vowel with a high rising tone.[nb 2]


If the !Kung languages are counted together, they would make the third-most-populous click language after Khoekhoe and Sandawe. The most populous !Kung language, Juǀʼhoan, is perhaps tied for third place with Naro.

Estimates vary, but there are perhaps 14,000–18,000 speakers. Counting is difficult because speakers are scattered on farms, interspersed with speakers of other languages, but there are perhaps 9,000 in Namibia, 2,000 in Botswana, 3,700 in South Africa and 1,000 in Angola (down from perhaps 8,000 in 1975).[7]

Until the mid–late twentieth century, the ǃʼOǃKung and Maligo dialects were widespread in southern and central Angola. However, most !Kung fled the Angolan Civil War to Namibia (primarily to the Caprivi Strip), where they were recruited into the South African Defence Force special forces against the Angolan Army and SWAPO. At the end of the Border War, more than one thousand fighters and their families were relocated to Schmidtsdrift in South Africa amid uncertainty over their future in Namibia.[8] After more than a decade living in precarious conditions, the post-Apartheid government bought and donated land for a permanent settlement at Platfontein, near Schmidtsdrift.[9]

The total number of speakers of !Kung languages is around 108,000.


The better-known !Kung dialects are Tsumkwe Juǀʼhoan, Ekoka !Kung, ǃʼOǃKung, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein. Scholars distinguish between eleven and fifteen dialects, which may not be mutually intelligible when not adjacent, but there are no clear-cut distinctions between them at our present state of knowledge.

Sands et al. classify !Kung varieties into four clusters, with the first two being quite close:[10]

  • Northern !Kung: Southern Angola, around the Cunene, Cubango, Cuito, and Cuando rivers, but with many refugees now in Namibia:
  • North-Central !Kung: Namibia, between the Ovambo River and the Angolan border, around the tributaries of the Okavango River east of Rundu to the Etosha Pan:
ǀʼAkhwe (Ekoka)

ǂKxʼauǁʼein was too poorly attested to classify, but has since been determined to be Southeastern.

Heine & Honken (2010) classify 11 varieties into three branches:[6]

  • Northern–Western !Xuun
Northern !Xuun
Maligo (!xuun, kúándò !xuun "Kwando !Xuun"; SE Angola)
ǃʼOǃKung (!ʼo !uŋ "Forest !Xuun"; eastern C Angola)
Western !Xuun
— (!xūún, !ʼālè !xòān "Valley !Xuun"; Eenhana district, N Namibia)
ǀʼAkhwe (!xūún, ǀʼākhòè !xòān "Kwanyama !Xuun"; Eenhana, N Namibia)
Tsintsabis (!xūún; Tsintsabis, Tsumeb district, N Namibia)
Kavango !Xuun (!xūún, known as dom !xūún "River !Xuun" in Ekoka; Western Rundu district, N Namibia, & Angola adjacent)
Gaub (Tsumeb district, N Namibia)
Neitsas (Grootfontein district, N Namibia)
Juǀʼhoan (ju-|ʼhoan(-si); Tsumkwe district, N Namibiba, & Bots adjacent)
Dikundu (!xun, ju-|ʼhoa(si); Dikundu, W Caprivi)
ǂKxʼauǁʼein (ju-|ʼhoan(-si), !xun, ǂxʼāōǁʼàèn "Northern people"; Gobabis district, E Namibia)


The ancestral language, Proto-Juu or Proto-!Xuun, had five places of click articulation: Dental, alveolar, palatal, alveolar lateral, and retroflex (*ǃ˞ or *‼). The retroflex clicks have dropped out of Southeastern dialects such as Juǀʼhoan, but remain in Central !Kung. In ǀʼAkhwe (Ekoka), the palatal click has become a fricated alveolar.[11][12]

Proto-Juu 'belly' *‼ 'water'
SE (Tsumkwe) ᶢǃű ᶢǃű ǂ
N (Okongo/ǀʼAkhwe) ᶢǃű ᶢǁű ǃ͡s
NW (Mangetti Dune) ᶢǃű ᶢǁű ǂ
C (Neitsas/Nurugas) ᶢǃú ᶢ‼ú ǂ


  1. ^ The term !Kung is typically used when considering the dialects to constitute a single language; Ju tends to be used when considering them as a language family. The term !Kung is also sometimes used for the northern or northern and western varieties, as opposed to the well documented Ju{{|}}ʼhoansi in the southeast; however speakers of nearly all varieties, including the Ju{{|}}ʼhoan, call themselves !Kung. The spelling !Xuun seen in recent literature is from the Ju{{|}}ʼhoansi form, spelled ǃX’uun in the 1975 orthography,, since 1994, it has been spelled ǃKun.
    Additional spellings of !Kung / !Xuun are ǃHu, ǃKhung, ǃKu, Kung, Qxü, ǃung, ǃXo, Xû, ǃXû, Xun, ǃXung, ǃXũũ, !Xun, ʗhũ:,[4] and additional spellings of Ju are Dzu, Juu, Zhu.
  2. ^ For phonology and tones, see list of !Xun dialect names in Heine and Honken's "The Kx'a Family: A New Khoisan Genealogy" in the Journal of Asian and African Studies[6]


  1. ^ Gordon Jr. & Grimes 2005
  2. ^ a b Simons & Fennig 2017
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Ju-Kung". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Doke 1926
  5. ^ Haacke 2009
  6. ^ a b Heine & Honken 2010
  7. ^ Brenzinger 2011
  8. ^ Suzman 2001
  9. ^ Robins, Madzudzo & Brenzinger 2001
  10. ^ Sands 2010
  11. ^ Scott et al. 2010
  12. ^ Miller et al. 2011


  • Brenzinger, Matthias (2011). Witzlack-Makarevich; Ernszt, M, eds. "The twelve Modern Khoisan languages". Khoisan languages and linguistics: proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium, Riezlern / Kleinwalsertal. Research in Khoisan Studies. Cologne, Germany: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. 29.
  • Doke, Clement Martyn (Jul 1926). "The Phonetics of the Zulu Language". Bantu Studies. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand Press. 2. ISSN 0256-1751.
  • Gordon Jr., Raymond G; Grimes, Barbara F, eds. (2005) [1951]. Ethnologue Languages of the World (15th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. p. 150. ISBN 155671159X. LCCN 2004112063.
  • Haacke, W.H.G. (2009). "Khoesaan Languages". In Brown, Keith; Ogilvie, Sarah. Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. Oxford, UK: Elsevier. pp. 600–602. ISBN 9780080877747. LCCN 2008934269.
  • Miller, A.L.; Holliday, J.; Howcroft, D.M.; Phillips, S.; Smith, B.; Tsz-Hum, T.; Scott, A. (2011). "The Phonetics of the Modern-Day Reflexes of the Proto-Palatal Click in Juu Languages". Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Khoisan Languages and Linguistics.
  • Sands, Bonny (2010). Brenzinger, Matthias; König, Christa, eds. "Juu Subgroups Based on Phonological Patterns". Khoisian Language and Linguistics: the Riezlern Symposium 2003. Cologne, Germany: Rüdiger Köppe: 85–114.
  • Scott, Abigail; Miller, Amanda; Namaseb, Levi; Sands, Bonny; Shah, Sheena (Jun 2, 2010). "Retroflex Clicks in Two Dialects of !Xung". University of Botswana, Department of African Languages.
  • Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2017) [1951]. Ethnologue Languages of the World (20th ed.). Summer Institute of Linguistics. ISBN 9781556714177.