South African Xhosa are part of the Nguni people, which includes the Zulu, the Swazi-speaking people and the Ndebele who make up two thirds of the country's population.

South Africa's former President, Nelson Mandela, is Xhosa.

The Xhosa people call themselves AmaXhosa, and they call their language IsiXhosa. Official usage in the new South Africa is to use the correct African name including its prefixes (though I think the rest of us should stick with Xhosa and Zulu).

IsiXhosa is closely related to IsiZulu (the Zulu language), SiSwati (the language of Swaziland), and SiNdebele (one of the main languages of Zimbabwe). Together these are known as the Nguni languages, part of the widespread Bantu family, a branch of the Niger-Kordofanian superfamily.

The Bantustans of Transkei and Ciskei were created for the AmaXhosa and given unrecognized independence during the apartheid years. Historically there was not a single Xhosa tribe, but various such as the Ngqika, Thembu, Mpondo, and Gcaleka, with various dialects of a shared language.

Grammar

Characteristic of all Bantu languages is the class prefix. Any word for a person begins with something like m-, and the plural begins with something like ba- or wa-. See my write-ups on Swahili and Shona for other examples. In IsiXhosa there are multiple prefixes. A person word begins with um- in the singular and aba- in the plural. For example, umntu 'person', abantu 'people'; umfazi 'woman', abafazi 'women'.

Related to this is the ama- in their ethnic name AmaXhosa.

There is a slightly different prefix for kinship terms and personal names: ubhuti 'brother', oobhuti 'brothers', and so also usisi 'sister', oomama 'mothers'. They also say USmith and UMary. But these are for reference, when talking about the person: when talking to the person, they are not used: bhuti 'brother!'.

The prefix um- is also used for some non-human nouns, but it is a different class prefix. It has different agreement, and a different plural, imi-: so umlenze 'leg', imilenze 'legs'. (This split is common in Bantu: Swahili similarly has it, e.g. mtu 'person', mguu 'leg', but watu 'people', miguu 'legs'.) Another prefix pair is illustrated by inyoka 'snake', iinyoka 'snakes'. IsiXhosa has a total of fifteen classes. Other examples with 'Xhosa' are sithetha ngesiXhosa 'we speak Xhosa' and neencwadi zesiXhosa 'Xhosa books'.

Note that Frankie, who knows Xhosa fairly well, says that in practice two vowels never come together. So the forms I've given (taken from websites) might be more formal: I should get a book on it for myself and come back to this.

Class prefixes also go on adjectives, numerals and verbs. For example with the stem -mnandi 'good' (which forms an abstract noun ubumnandi 'goodness'):

  • umfazi omnandi 'good woman'
  • abafazi abamnandi 'good women'
  • inyoka emnandi 'good snake'
  • iinyoka ezimnandi 'good snakes'

And with the numerals one to five:

  • umfazi omnye 'one woman'
  • abafazi ababini (abathathu, abane, abahlanu) 'two (three, four, five) women'
  • inyoka enye 'one snake'
  • iinyoka ezimbini (ezintathu, ezine, ezintlanu) 'two (three, four, five) snakes'

Frankie says in everyday speech the English numerals are always used instead.

As in Swahili, the verb prefixes for the third person are similar to but not the same as the noun prefixes:

  • ndibona 'I see'
  • sibona 'we see'
  • ubona 'you see'
  • umfazi ubona 'the woman sees'
  • abafazi babona 'the women see'
  • inyoka ibona 'the snake sees'
  • iinyoka zibona 'the snakes see'

Phonetics

IsiXhosa has twelve click consonants, written C CH NC GC Q QH NQ GQ X XH NX GX, and explained in detail in pike's write-up clicks in Xhosa. The Nguni languages borrowed these very unusual sounds from the neighbouring Khoisan languages.

They also have lateral fricatives, viz sounds something like the Welsh ll. The Welsh sound tends to be palatal, more like SHL. The Nguni languages have dental lateral fricatives, more like THL. To be a bit more accurate, an L with the friction of TH continued throughout them. They have two such sounds, a voiceless one written hl and a voiced one written dhl (dl in SiSwati). An example is the Zulu place name Isandhlwana.

IsiXhosa, like most Bantu languages, is a tone language: the specific pitch of each syllable is important for the meaning. This is not indicated in the standard spelling. The four basic tones are high, extra high, mid/low, and high falling. There are complex alterations of the tones depending on the neighbouring consonants. Tone is also affected by the overall intonation of the sentence.

The consonants ph th kh are the heavily aspirated P T K sounds that English uses at the beginning of a word, as in pin tin kin. These contrast with p t k, which are ejective, that is they have a simultaneous glottal stop. As well as an ordinary plosive b, there is an ingressive one, i.e. the breath is briefly inhaled while making it.

The word for hello is molo.

Since writing the first version of this, I've discovered a Xhosa translation site at http://mokennon2.albion.edu/English.htm where you can enter simple English sentences and have them translated into Xhosa. Some of my examples were created by experimenting with this.

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