Search for resources by:

Definitions of materials Definitions of levels
Exclude Websites
Advanced Search
Please note: Due to project funding termination in summer 2014, this database is no longer actively being maintained. We cannot guarantee the accuracy of the listings.


Xhosa Citations   Xhosa Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: Approximately 6.5 million

Key Dialects: Literary Xhosa and others

Geographical Center: Southeastern South Africa

Xhosa is a "dominant language" (Grobler et al.1990) in about three dozen districts of Eastern Cape Province and adjacent Orange Free State, and in the Transkei and Ciskei. It is also spoken as a dominant language in several districts away from the main Xhosa region: in Petrusburg near Bloemfontein, and in the mining districts of Oberholzer and Westonaria, southwest of Johannesburg. Speakers of Xhosa total about 6.5 million. It is the most widely distributed African language in South Africa, although not the most spoken: Zulu has more speakers. Other speakers are found in major population centers throughout the Republic of South Africa. Afrikaans and English are official languages of South Africa, but Xhosa is a declared official language in Ciskei, along with English, and the official language in Transkei, although English, Afrikaans, and other African vernaculars are used for judicial, legislative, and administrative purposes (McFerren 1985).

Xhosa is a Nguni language, a subgroup that also includes Zulu; Swati; and Ndebele (the latter spoken in Zimbabwe and parts of the Republic of South Africa); all four languages are closely related and mutually intelligible. However, they are generally not considered as dialects of the same language for cultural, historical, and political reasons. For instance, Zulu and Xhosa have their own identities in the view of individual speakers of the respective languages. The Nguni languages are part of a much larger related group of Southeastern Bantu languages that includes Sotho (Northern, Southern, and Tswana), Tsonga, Venda, and Inhambane (Chopi and Tonga) along with the Nguni languages. For the most part the Southeastern Bantu languages are spoken within the Republic of South Africa; Tswana is predominantly spoken in Botswana and in the former "homeland" of Bophuthatswana; Inhambane languages are found in southern Mozambique. In turn all these languages just mentioned are related to the Shona dialect cluster, predominantly spoken in Zimbabwe. This group, inclusive of all the above, is also known as Narrow Bantu 'S'. As a Bantu language, Xhosa is related to a large number of languages spoken throughout much of Eastern, Southern, and Central Africa from South Africa to Cameroon in the west and Kenya in the east.

Some scholars distinguish several dialects of Xhosa: (original) Xhosa, Ngqika, Gcaleka, Mfengu, Thembu, Bomvana, and Mpondomise (Grobler et. al. 1990). Others give a slightly different breakdown and point out that literary Xhosa is based on the Gcaleka, Ndlambe, and Gaika dialects (Doke (1954). Literary Xhosa differs from spoken Xhosa; its codified form is regulated by the Xhosa Language Boards of Ciskei and Transkei (Grobler et al. 1990).

Xhosa has a Roman based orthography that well represents the spoken language. Xhosa also uses various combinations of graphemes to represent, for example, click sounds that cannot be adequately represented using the Roman-based orthography.

Xhosa is an agglutinative language, that is, grammatical information is conveyed by attaching prefixes and suffixes to roots and stems. As in other Bantu languages, nouns are divided into sets or classes, referred to as grammatical genders. Each gender has two distinct prefixes, one marking singular nouns, the other plural nouns. There are numerous classes far exceeding the masculine, feminine and neuter classifications of familiar European languages and each class is roughly associated with certain semantic characteristics; for instance, there are classes for human beings, kinship terms, animals, plants, artifacts, abstract concepts, and so on.

Verbs are complex; a system of affixes mark various grammatical relations, such as subject, object, tense, aspect, and mood. Suffixes on verbs are used to derive, for example, passive, causative, reciprocal, and prepositional verb forms. There is a system of concordial agreement in which subject nouns, object nouns optionally, and other sentence constituents must agree with the verb of the sentence in class and number. Adjectives, possessive pronouns and demonstratives also agree in class and number with the noun they modify.

The phonology of Xhosa is characterized by a simple vowel inventory and a highly marked consonantal system with ejectives, implosives and clicks. It is also a tone language with inherent high and low tones.

Xhosa, and other Southern Bantu languages have borrowed words extensively from Khoisan (languages of southern Africa aboriginal hunter-gatherer populations) and in modern times from English and Afrikaans.

The role of African languages in South Africa is complex and ambiguous. Their use in education has been governed by legislation, beginning with the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which was revised over the years to reflect a changing political climate. At present Xhosa is used in primary schools up to Standard 2, but thereafter is replaced by English. It is still studied as a subject in both primary and secondary schools up to Standard 10. At the secondary level, even those schools serving Xhosa speaking students use English. All education at the university level throughout the Republic of South Africa is in English or Afrikaans, Xhosa is a subject taught in nine institutions of higher learning.

Literary work has been developed in Xhosa including prose and poetry. The South African Broadcasting Corporation has domestic service in Xhosa on both radio (129 hours per week) and television (15 hours a week in TV2). It is also broadcast by Radio Transkei. A number of publications, newspapers, and monthlies are published in Xhosa, or in Xhosa and English or other African languages (see Europa Publications 1993).

Although Xhosa is used in primary and secondary education, attitudes about this among Xhosa speakers vary. Some see the use of an African language in education as "separate development," an outgrowth of the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and an attempt to support de facto segregation as well as linguistic segregation; those with this view support the use of English in the schools. Others argue that mother tongue education in the primary years leads to better acquisition and literacy in English.

Xhosa speaking peoples or their immediate Nguni speaking forbearers inhabited coastal regions of southeastern Africa since before the sixteenth century. Their language is the most southerly spoken Bantu language in the African continent. Their entry into southern Africa came along with a much more extensive and larger movement of Bantu speaking peoples who over a millennium had been moving south along the East African coast and through Central Africa. Upon their entry into southern Africa they encountered Khoisan speaking peoples and adopted some of their vocabulary and elements of their phonologies, in particular the well known "clicks" of southern African languages. It is only Southern Bantu languages that possess these sounds; other Bantu languages do not. In the modern period, Xhosa has also borrowed from Afrikaans and English.

Bright, W. 1992. "Narrow Bantu 'S'" in International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 4, edited by W. Bright, 52 53. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 2. London and New York: Routledge.

Doke, C. M. 1954. The Southern Bantu Languages. London: Oxford University Press for the International African Institute.

Europa Publications. 1993. "South Africa" in The Europa World Year Book 1993, Vol. 2, 2567 2591. London: Europa Publications Limited.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Grobler, E., K. P. Prinsloo, and I. J. van der Merwe. 1990. Language Atlas of South Africa: Language and Literacy Patterns. Pretoria, Republic of South Africa: Human Sciences Research Council.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

McFerren, M. 1984. Country Status Report

Return to the list of language portals


 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

  • You may use and modify the material for any non-commercial purpose.
  • You must credit the UCLA Language Materials Project as the source.
  • If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

Creative Commons License