N%C7%81ng Language
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N%C7%81ng Language

Native toSouth Africa
Region2 speaker in Olifantshoek, 3 in Upington[1]
Ethnicity500 N?n?e (?Khomani)
Native speakers
5 (2013)[1]
(3 N?uu and 2 ?'Au)
  • ?Kwi
    • N?ng
  • N?uu
  • ?'Au
  • ?Khomani
Language codes
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

N?ng or Nke, commonly known by the name of its dialect N?uu (N?huki), is a moribund Tuu (Khoisan) language once spoken in South Africa. It is no longer spoken on a daily basis, as the speakers live in different villages. The dialect name ?Khomani is used for the entire people by the South African government, but the descendants of ?Khomani-dialect speakers now speak Khoikhoi. As of January 2013, only three speakers of the N?uu dialect[3] and two of the ?'Au dialect remain.

Classification and name

N?ng belongs to the Tuu (Taa-?Kwi) language family, with extinct ?Xam being its closest relative and Taa its closest living relative.

The two recent dialects are N?uu (N?huki) and ?'Au (?Kh'au). Extinct dialects include ?Khomani and Langeberg. ?Khomani had been recorded by Doke and by Maingard, N?huki by Weshphal, and Langeberg by Dorothea Bleek.[4] As of 2010, most remaining speakers spoke N?uu dialect, and this was the name N?ng appeared under when it was rediscovered. However, two spoke ?'Au and rejected the label N?uu.

Of the names N?uu, ?'Au, and N?ng, the easiest for English speakers to pronounce is N?uu. The letter that looks like a vertical bar (sometimes carelessly substituted with a slash) represents a dental click like the English interjection tsk! tsk! (tut! tut!) used to express pity or shame, but nasalized; "N?uu" is pronounced like noo, with a tsk! in the middle of the [n]. The double-vertical-bar in "N?ng" is a (single) lateral click, pronounced like the tchick! used to spur on a horse; the name is pronounced like the ng of sung with this click in it.

The word n?uu /ùú/ is actually a verb, 'to speak N?uu'. The people call themselves N-?e / ?é/ 'people', and Westphal believes this may be the term recorded by Bleek and variously rendered in the literature as ?Ng ?'e, ?n-?ke, .?ke.[5]

The name N?usan is an ambiguous Khoekhoe exonym, and is used for several Tuu languages. Traill says that the ?'Auni call their language N?huki, but others have recorded their name for their language as ?'Auo, and both Westphal and Köhler state that N?huki (N?huci, nuki) is a variety of N?ng. It's not clear if both are correct or if languages have gotten mixed up in the literature.[6]


N?ng prospered through the 19th century, but encroaching non-?Kwi languages and acculturation threatened it, like most other Khoisan languages. The language was mainly displaced by Afrikaans and Nama, especially after speakers started migrating to towns in the 1930s and found themselves surrounded by non-N?ng-speaking people. In 1973 their language was declared extinct, and the remaining N?n?e ("?Khomani") were evicted from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park.

In the 1990s, linguists located 101-year-old Elsie Vaalbooi, who could still speak N?ng. Anthony Traill interviewed her in 1997. The South African San Institute soon became involved in the pursuit of information on the N?ng language, and with the help of Vaalbooi they tracked down 25 other people scattered by the eviction who were able to speak or at least understand the language. Thabo Mbeki handed over 400 km2 of land to the N?n?e in 1999, and 250 km2 of land within the park in 2002. Vaalbooi came up with the N?ng motto of Sa ?'a ?ainsi uinsi "We move towards a better life" for her rehabilitated people. This was also adopted as the official motto for the Northern Cape Province. At the time there were twenty elderly speakers, eight of whom lived in the Western Cape province signed over to them. As of 2007, fewer than ten are still alive in South Africa, and a few more in Botswana; none live with another speaker, and their daily languages are Khoekhoe and Tswana, respectively. The younger generations of ?Khomani are proud Nama speakers, and have little affinity to N?ng, so there is little chance of saving the language. Linguist Nigel Crawhall is heading a team to document what remains.

Recent research on N?ng led by Amanda Miller of Cornell University has helped describe the physics of its clicks, leading to a better understanding of click sounds in general.[7]

Efforts to perpetuate the N?ng language continue in 2017.[8]

Speech sounds

N?ng has one of the more complex sound inventories of the world's languages. Most lexical words consist of a phonological foot with two moras (tone-bearing units). The first mora must start with a consonant (CV). The second mora may be a single vowel (V), a nasal consonant m or n (N), or one of a drastically reduced number of consonants plus a vowel (cV). That is, lexical roots, not counting sometimes lexicalized CV prefixes and suffixes, are typically CVcV, CVV, CVN, though there are also a few which are CV, as well as longer words of two phonological feet: CVCV, where the second C is not one of the reduced set of consonants but cannot be a click,[9] CVCVN, CVVCV, CVNCV, CVVCVN, CVNCVN, CVcVCV, CVVCVcV. Grammatical words tend to be CV or V.[10]

There are occasional exceptions to these patterns in ideophonic words such as /?ù?ùkú?úí-sí/ 'Namaqua sandgrouse' (CVcVCVCVV + suffix) and historically reduplicated words with clicks such as /?áàm?/ 'to talk'.


Like most languages in southern Africa, N?ng has five vowel qualities. These may occur strident and nasalized. A word may have two adjacent vowels, which resemble a long vowel or diphthong.

The strident vowels are thought to have the phonation called harsh voice. They are strongly pharyngealized, and for some speakers involve low-frequency trilling that presumably involves the aryepiglottic fold. The four strident vowel qualities (there is no strident i) are rather different from the non-strident vowels, as is common when a vowel is pharyngealized.

High front Mid front Low central Mid back High back/central
Modal i [i?] e [e?] a [ä] o [o?] u [u?]
Nasal ? [] ? [] ã [ä?] õ [õ?] ? [u]
Strident[11] e? [] a? [?] o? [?] u? []
Nasal strident (?) ã? [] õ? [] ?? [?]

N?ng is the only Khoisan language known to have a strident front vowel, /e?/, though this is rare, occurring in only two known words, /zé/ 'to fly' and /?é/ 'loincloth'. The lack of a nasalized equivalent is thought to be an accidental gap or simply unattested due to the small number of known words.

The tone-bearing segment may be a syllabic nasal, //, rather than a vowel, as in the name N?ng.

Only certain sequences of vowels may occur in a bimoraic foot, regardless of whether there is an intervening consonant. (That is, the permitted vowels are the same whether a word is CVcV or CVV.) If the first vowel is any variety (nasal, strident, etc.) of /i, e, /, then the second vowel must be identical. If the first vowel is /a/, then the second may be anything but //. If the first vowel is /o/ or /u/, then the second may be either /a/ or a vowel of the same height: that is, oa, oo, oe; ua, uu, ui. The vowels must be both oral or both nasal; nasal vowels cannot follow a nasal stop (though they may follow nasal clicks). Only the first vowel may be strident.

Front vowels can only follow the click types ? and ? (the back-vowel constraint), with a single known exception, é 'to go'. Front vowels and strident vowels may also not follow [?], whether an affricate release or a fricative, with the exception of three female kin terms where the second syllable is /?è/. As with the lack of strident front vowels, there are thus a small number of exceptions for these constraints with /e/, but none with /i/.


N?ng moras may carry a high or low tone, /H/ or /L/. A typical lexical word consists of two moras, and so may have a high (HH), low (LL), rising (LH), or falling (HL) tone.

Monomoraic lexical roots, such as /cú/ 'mouth', are high- rather than low-tone by a 5-1 margin. CVV and CVN roots are HH, HL, and LH with about equal frequency, with LL slightly less common. However, half of all CVcV roots are LH, making it markedly frequent, while only 5% are HL. In an additional CV foot the distribution of H and L is approximately equal; an additional CVN or CVcV foot may pattern like an initial foot, but they are too infrequent to be sure.


The majority of N?ng consonants are clicks. It was once thought that Khoisan languages distinguish velar and uvular clicks, but recent research into N?ng, and reevaluation of the data on ?Xóõ, indicates that, for these languages at least, the distinction is one of pure clicks versus click-plosive contours.

"(?)" marks possible accidental gaps; these consonants might be expected based on their occurrence in neighboring languages with similar phonologies, but are expected to be rare, and may occur in N?ng words that have not been recorded.

What were historically initial alveolar occlusives have become pre-palatal in lexical words. Among grammatical words in N?uu dialect there is a single exception, 'I'; in ?'Au dialect even that has merged, for 'I'.

Reduced medial consonants (C2)
Bilabial Alveolar
Nasal m n
Oral (central) ? ?
Lateral l

Only sonorants may occur as the medial consonant of a phonological foot. /l/ is only known from three words. The oral sonorants do not occur in initial position.

Glottalic consonants (C1)
Bilabial Laminal
Plosive (?) c' (?)
Affricate t?s' k'
Lingual consonants (C1)
Alveo-uvular Palato-
central lateral
Nasal voiced
aspirated (?) ? ? ? ?
Plosive voiced
tenuis ? ? ? ? ?
aspirated (?)

These are simple clicks. The traditional term "velaric" is something of a misnomer, for the rear articulation is further back than the velum, and indeed further back than N?ng /q/. Miller et al. prefer the term "lingual" for this airstream mechanism; they also reject the existence of click "accompaniments", using the IPA symbols to represent both points of articulation rather than solely the anterior articulation. Besides being motivated phonetically, this has the benefit of better illustrating the parallels between clicks and pulmonic consonants.

In the above rubric, the first element of the name is the forward articulation, and the second is the rear articulation.

Alveo-uvular Palato-
central lateral
Plosive tenuis q q q q q
aspirated (?) q? q? q? q?
voiced (?) (?) (?) (?)

These are airstream contour consonants, which start off with a lingual (velaric) airstream mechanism and finish with a pulmonic airstream (whereas affricates are manner contour consonants, starting as plosives and finishing as fricatives). Traditionally, these were considered to be uvular clicks, because the uvular or pharyngeal closure is audible, but in fact the rear closure of all N?ng clicks is uvular or pharyngeal. (The distinction between uvular and pharyngeal is not represented here.) Effectively, in these clicks the release of the rear articulation is delayed, so that there is a double release burst, the forward (lingual) release followed by the rear (pulmonic) release.

Alveo-uvular Palato-
central lateral
Plosive q' q' q' q' q'
Affricate (?) ' ' ' '

These differ from the previous consonants in that the second, rear release is an ejective.


  1. ^ a b N//ng at Endangered Languages.com
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "N||ng". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Pumza Fihlani (30 August 2017). "Trying to save South Africa's first language". BBC News, Northern Cape. Retrieved 2017.
  4. ^ Güldemann (2011)
  5. ^ Distinguish N?hu?éi, which is a variety of Taa, and 'e, which is related to Seroa.
  6. ^ Yvonne Treis, 1998, "Names of Khoisan Languages and their Variants"
  7. ^ "Classifying "Clicks": New language technology clears up 100-year-old mystery". NSF. 14 July 2009. Retrieved 2009.
  8. ^ "Trying to save South Africa's first language". BBC News. 30 August 2017.
  9. ^ The most common consonants in this position are glottal stop, /c/, and /k/.
  10. ^ Mats Exter, 2008 [2012], Properties of the Anterior and Posterior Click Closures in N?uu, disertation, University of Cologne
  11. ^ These are often written with a superscript ⟨?⟩.


External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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