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Xhosa

The Xhosa language has an intriguing history intertwined with the Xhosa-speaking peoples’ struggle against apartheid during the 20th century.

The term “Xhosa” also can be used to refer to the native speakers of the Xhosa language, the Xhosa people of South Africa. One famous Xhosa-language speaker who played an enormous role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa is Nelson Mandela.

Classification of the Xhosa Language

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Xhosa is classified as a member of the Southeastern or Nguni group of the Bantu language group. The Bantu languages belong to the Benue-Congo subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family. Other African languages belonging to the Southeastern group include Sesotho, Zulu and Ndebele.

Early History of the Xhosa Language: The Bantu Migration

Although the term Bantu can be used to refer both to the Bantu language family and to a shared Bantu culture, the term is increasingly seen as a linguistic rather than a cultural label. The Bantu people originated in present-day Cameroon and Nigeria and are believed to have migrated southward from about 2000 BC to 1000 AD. This is thought to be one of the largest mass migrations in all of human history.

The Bantu divided into two language groups – Eastern and Western – early in their history. The Xhosa people are one of many tribal groups that descended from the Bantu and came to develop their own unique language and culture.

The Cape Frontier Wars: Xhosa Defeat

The Xhosa are historically a patriarchal society of pastoral nomads in which land is passed down from father to son. In early Xhosa tribal society, tribal sons would often break away from the reigning chieftain and go in search of new grazing land where they could establish new chieftaincies.

This pattern of migration and expansion inevitably led the Xhosa into struggles for land with European colonial powers. Skirmishes with British and Dutch settlers eventually led to the Cape Frontier Wars, which lasted from 1778 to 1878. The Xhosa were eventually defeated, and all Xhosa territory was consequently annexed by these colonial powers.

Colonial Impact on the Xhosa Language

Missionary influence from the time of colonialism played an enormous role in the early development of the written Xhosa language. The first known example of written Xhosa is a hymn dating to the 19th century which was written using a Latin-based script. Other major developments around this time included a translation of the Bible into Xhosa that was completed in 1859 and the establishment of the Lovedale Press by the London Missionary Society.

A variety of other missionary groups also established a number of journals and magazines throughout the 1800s, among them the Wesleyan missionaries’ “Isitunywa Senyana” magazine that was instituted in 1850 but forced to interrupt publication due to the Frontier Wars. A bilingual Xhosa-English language newspaper known as “Indaba” (“The News”) appeared in 1862. This was later to be replaced by the solely Xhosa-language “Isigidimi samaXhosa” (“The Xhosa Messenger”). Aside from printing journalistic items, periodicals like these also included Xhosa poetry and prose.

Apartheid in South Africa: Effects on the Xhosa-Speaking People

In 1959 the South African government instituted the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act, creating a number of Bantu or Black Homelands (more commonly known as “Bantustans”) where black Africans were to live. As part of the government’s apartheid policy, the Bantu Self-Government Act served as a means of segregating black South Africans, and the Bantustans created in the process were not recognized by the international community.

One Bantustan created at this time was that of the Transkei, a non-independent republic designated for the inhabitation of black Xhosa-speaking peoples. Like all Bantustans, the Transkei faced enormous economic difficulty, and many of its citizens were forced to commute to work in white areas of South Africa. Bantustan residents’ rights were also severely limited, as they were considered citizens of Bantustans rather than citizens of South Africa.

“Independence” for the Transkei

As early as 1961, the Transkei became the first Bantustan to push for self-government, and in 1976 the Transkei was technically awarded “independence” by the South African government. This freedom, however, was severely limited by the fact that the Transkei continued to receive most of its funding from the central South African government. What’s more, citizens of independent Bantustans lost their South African citizenship, leaving them with even less rights than before.

In addition to this, no other country would recognize the Transkei’s independence because doing so would imply acceptance of – and victory for – the South African government’s apartheid policies. The United Nations supported the decision to refuse recognition of Transkei’s and other Bantustans’ independence.

End of Apartheid

Flag of South Africa

In 1994, South Africa held its first multiracial elections, effectively marking the end of decades of oppressive apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa-language speaker, became post-apartheid South Africa’s first president – and the country’s first black president in history. That same year, the Bantustans (including the Transkei) were reintegrated into the newly unified South Africa.

Xhosa Language Literature: Political Significance

Xhosa literature has often addressed political issues faced by the Xhosa-speaking peoples, including colonialism, urbanization and apartheid. For example, A.C. Jordan’s “Ingqumbo yeminyanya” (“The Wrath of the Ancestors,” 1940) explores the status of African tradition in the face of Western colonial intrusion, while Guybon Sinxo’s 1922 novel “uNomsa” looks at the dangers of urban life in Africa. Xhosa literature also has often been used to transcribe Xhosa oral traditions in hopes of preserving them.

Characteristics of the Xhosa Language

Xhosa includes a number of click sounds that were incorporated into the language due to the influence of nearby Khoisan languages. Xhosa is a tonal language, meaning that tone and inflection are used to distinguish between words that would otherwise have identical sounds.

Contemporary Xhosa Language and Dialects

The Xhosa language is found primarily in present-day South Africa, especially in eastern areas of the country. A number of Xhosa language dialects exist in the area between the Natal and Eastern Cape, most of them mutually intelligible. There are an estimated 7 million native Xhosa language speakers in South Africa today.


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Xhosa Quick Facts

Alternate Names & Spellings: Isixhosa, Xosa, Koosa, Kaffer, Kaffir, Caffre, Cafre, Cauzuh

Language Family: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, S, Nguni (S.40)

Official Language of: South Africa

Spoken by Approximately 7,214,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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