!Kung languages

!Kung IPA: [!ʊŋ] (!Xun), also known as Ju, is a dialect continuum (language complex) spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola by the ǃKung people, constituting two or three languages. Together with the ǂʼAmkoe language, !Kung forms the Kxʼa 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 now regarded as spurious. Nonetheless, the anthropological term "Khoisan" has been retained as an umbrella term for click languages in general.[3]

Native toNamibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa
Native speakers
16,000 ± 2,000 (2011)[1]
  • !Kung
Language codes
ISO 639-3Variously:
vaj  Northern !Kung
knw  Ekoka !Kung
ktz  Southern !Kung

!Kung is famous for its many 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 Juǀʼhoan. 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 1]


The term !Kung, or variants thereof, is typically used when considering the dialects to constitute a single language; Ju tends to be used when considering them as a small language family. !Kung is also sometimes used for the northern/northwestern dialects, as opposed to the well documented Ju|ʼhoan dialects in the south(east); however speakers of nearly all dialects call themselves !Kung.

The spellings !Xun and !Xuun seen in recent literature are related to the Ju|ʼhoan form spelled ǃXʼu(u)n in the 1975 orthography, or ǃKu(u)n in current orthography. Additional spellings are ǃHu, ǃKhung, ǃKu, Kung, Qxü, ǃung, ǃXo, Xû, ǃXû, Xun, ǃXung, ǃXũũ, !Xun, ʗhũ:,[5] and additional spellings of Ju are Dzu, Juu, Zhu.


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

Estimates vary, but there are probably around 15,000 speakers. Counting is difficult because speakers are scattered on farms, interspersed with speakers of other languages, but Brenzinger (2011)[1] counts 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).

Until the mid–late twentieth century, the northern 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.[6] 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.[7]

Only Ju|'hoan is written, and it is not sufficiently intelligible with the Northwestern dialects for the same literature to be used for both.


The better-known !Kung dialects are Tsumkwe Juǀʼhoan, Ekoka !Kung, ǃʼOǃKung, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein. Scholars distinguish between eleven and fifteen dialects, but the boundaries are unclear. There is a clear distinction between North/Northwest vs South/Southeast, but also a diverse Central group that is poorly attested.

Heine & Honken (2010) classify the 11 traditionally numbered dialects into three branches of what they consider a single language:[4]

  • Northern–Western !Xun
Northern !Xun
(N1) Maligo (!xuun, kúándò !xuun "Kwando !Xuun"; SE Angola)
(N2) ǃʼOǃKung (!ʼo !uŋ "Forest !Xuun"; eastern C Angola)
Western !Xun
(W1) — (!xūún, !ʼālè !xòān "Valley !Xuun"; Eenhana district, N Namibia)
(W2) ǀʼAkhwe (!xūún, ǀʼākhòè !xòān "Kwanyama !Xuun"; Eenhana, N Namibia)
(W3) Tsintsabis (!xūún; Tsintsabis, Tsumeb district, N Namibia)
(K) Kavango !Xuun (!xūún, known as dom !xūún "River !Xuun" in Ekoka; Western Rundu district, N Namibia, & Angola adjacent)
(C1) Gaub (Tsumeb district, N Namibia)
(C2) Neitsas (Grootfontein district, N Namibia)
tentatively also the Tsintsabis, Leeunes and Mangetti (different from Mangetti Dune) dialects
(E1) Juǀʼhoan (ju-|ʼhoan(-si); Tsumkwe district, N Namibia, & Bots adjacent)
(E2) Dikundu (!xun, ju-|ʼhoa(si); Dikundu, W Caprivi)
(E3) ǂKxʼauǁʼein (ju-|ʼhoan(-si), !xun, ǂxʼāōǁʼàèn "Northern people"; Gobabis district, E Namibia)

Heine & König (2015.324) state that speakers of all Northwestern dialects "understand one another to quite some extent" but that they do not understand any of the Southeastern dialects.

Sands (2010) classifies !Kung dialects into four clusters, with the first two being quite close:[8]

  • (northern)
    • 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 at the time.


The ancestral language, Proto-Juu or Proto-!Xuun, had five places of click articulation: Dental, alveolar, palatal, alveolar lateral, and retroflex (*‼). 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.[9][10]

Proto-Juu 'belly'*‼ 'water'
SE (Tsumkwe) ᶢǃűᶢǃűǂ
N (Okongo/ǀʼAkhwe) ᶢǃűᶢǁű
NW (Mangetti Dune) ᶢǃűᶢǁűǂ
C (Neitsas/Nurugas) ᶢǃúᶢ‼úǂ


  1. For phonology and tones, see list of !Xun dialect names in Heine and Honken's "The Kxʼa Family: A New Khoisan Genealogy" in the Journal of Asian and African Studies[4]


  1. Brenzinger 2011
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Ju-Kung". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Haacke 2009
  4. Heine & Honken 2010
  5. Doke 1926
  6. Suzman 2001
  7. Robins, Madzudzo & Brenzinger 2001
  8. Sands 2010
  9. Scott et al. 2010
  10. 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 (July 1926). "The Phonetics of the Zulu Language". Bantu Studies. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand Press. 2. ISSN 0256-1751.
  • Haacke, W.H.G. (2009). "Khoesaan Languages". In Brown, Keith; Ogilvie, Sarah (eds.). Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. Oxford, UK: Elsevier. pp. 600–602. ISBN 9780080877747. LCCN 2008934269.
  • Heine, Bernd; Honken, Henry (2010). "The Kxʼa Family: A New Khoisan Genealogy" (PDF). Journal of Asian and African Studies. Tokyo, Japan (79): 5–36. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 31, 2017.
  • Heine, Bernd; König, Christa (2015). The !Xun Language: A Dialect Grammar of Northern Khoisan. Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung, 33. Rüdiger Köppe. ISBN 9783896458773.
  • 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.
  • Robins, Steven; Madzudzo, Elias; Brenzinger, Matthias (April 2001). "Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa — An Assessment of the Status of the San in South Africa, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe" (PDF). 2. Windhoek, Namibia: Legal Assistance Centre (LAC). ISBN 9991676546. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 31, 2017. Retrieved August 31, 2017. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  • 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 (June 2, 2010). "Retroflex Clicks in Two Dialects of !Xung". University of Botswana, Department of African Languages.
  • Suzman, James (April 2001). "Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa – An Assessment of the Status of the San in Namibia" (pdf). 4. Windhoek, Namibia: Legal Assistance Centre (LAC). ISBN 99916-765-1-1. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 31, 2017. Retrieved August 31, 2017. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
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