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The isiXhosa Language

IsiXhosa is a Southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa. In 1994 isiXhosa became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of isiXhosa speakers to be 7,907,156. IsiXhosa speakers therefore make up 18% the population, making them the second largest language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are situated in the South African province of the Eastern Cape. There are however also very large communities of Xhosa speakers in the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town. This summary explores the linguistic derivation of the language, the history of written codification and dialectal variation, and recent attempts to standardize the language in South Africa.

IsiXhosa forms part of the “Southern Bantu” group of African languages, which in turn forms part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The Central subgroup is further subdivided into geographical regions, each designated by a letter. The S-Group covers much of southern Africa and includes the two major dialect continua of South Africa: the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana language groups. Languages within these two groups tend to be mutually intelligible and the groups make up 47% and 25% of the South African population respectively. IsiXhosa forms part of the Nguni language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, isiZulu, siSwati and isiNdebele. Linguists often drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence isiXhosa is commonly referred to as “Xhosa.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. The language is also sometimes referred to as “Cape Nguni.”

Strictly speaking, the term ‘Xhosa’ refers only to those people who claim descent from an ancestor named Xhosa, notably the Gcaleka and Rhahabe communities of the present-day Eastern Cape. The word is nevertheless now used to refer generally to all language dialects spoken in the Eastern Cape. The main subdialects are therefore Mpondo (or isiNdrondoza, the most distinct of the regional dialects), Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondimise, Rharhabe, Gcaleka, Xesibe, Bhaca, Cele, Hlubi, Ntlangwini, Ngqika, and Mfengu.

Like the other indigenous South African languages, isiXhosa is a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. The distinguishing feature of isiXhosa are the click sounds (c, q and x) which where incorporated through language contact with the Khoi and San speakers of the south western region of South Africa. Thus “Xhosa” is pronounced with an initial palatal click. As this tends to be difficult for speakers of other languages, the name is very commonly rendered as “Kosa.” The inability of the English to pronounce the clicks was famously parodied by Miriam Makeba in “the Click Song”, so named – as she explains – because “they cannot say Qongqothwane.” Examples of phrases in the language include: Molo (hello); Uyaphila? (How are you?); Ndiyaphila (I am fine).

The first of the indigenous languages to come into contact with European settlers during the nineteenth century, isiXhosa became the one of first southern African languages to be reduced to writing. Missionaries at the Lovedale mission station codified the language of the nearby Ngqika community and produced many of the earliest texts. The Presbyterian missionary John Bennie wrote the first Xhosa vocabulary list in 1824. Bennie’s work set the scene for the establishment of a printing press, which later became known as the Lovedale Press. Through this press isiXhosa had, by the early twentieth century, established the strongest African language literary tradition in the country. The most famous authors in this tradition were Rubusana, Soga, Mqhayi, Jordan, Jolobe and Sinxo. One of the most famous works was “The Wrath of the Ancestors” by AC Jordan. Jordan was an academic at Fort Hare University, which was founded in the town of Alice, not far from the Lovedale Institute and Press. The academic tradition that grew out of these institutions had a powerful influence on the whole of the subcontinent.

During the apartheid period, the ruling National Party’s policy of Grand Apartheid was built on a vision of ethno-linguistically discrete territories for South Africa’s indigenous population. Beginning after 1960, the widely condemned “Bantustan” policies of Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd resulted in the creation of ten self-governing territories in predominantly rural areas of South Africa. The tenuous political and economic logic of grand apartheid was most clearly evident in the Eastern Cape region, where two distinct Xhosa speaking territorial authorities where created: the Transkei and the Ciskei. Both the Transkei and the Ciskei subsequently became part of four regional authorities to accept independence or nominal sovereignty (the “TBVC states”, none of the independent states were recognised outside South Africa).

Under apartheid separate language boards were also created for each of the nine standardized indigenous languages. The Xhosa Language Board was founded in 1955 and effectively appropriated the work of language development that had previously been done by missionaries. Although this language board made important technical contributions to the language, it also served as an instrument of Government control, screening out protest literature and restricting topics to “traditional” themes.

Following the democratic transition in 1994, responsibility for language policy and development now rests with the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. A new body – the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) – was also created and charged with responsibility for language planning. PanSALB has sought to facilitate the further development of the language. The isiXhosa Lexicography Unit has therefore been created and is responsible for developing terminology in the language. The development of the language in education has proven to be especially difficult. While the language is taught as a subject at all levels, it is only used as a medium of instruction in certain schools from grade 1 to grade 3. Xhosa is well represented on radio and shares a television channel with other Nguni languages.

Famous isiXhosa speaking South Africans include the current President of the Republic, Thabo Mbeki and two Nobel laureates: the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, and first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela.

For translation services into this language please visit > South African Languages Translation Service.

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