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Language Reference Guide For Xhosa
Posted on Saturday, October 13 @ 03:32:14 EDT
Topic: Lingustics

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1. Grammar and Spelling
2. Measurements and Abbreviations
3. Hyphenation
4. Miscellaneous Peculiarities
5. Geographic Distribution
6. Character Set

Section One - Grammar and Spelling

1. Gender: There are few cases in Xhosa where a particular conventional form is adopted, except for actual names of animals/living things. There is no grammatical gender in Xhosa. For example, if I say, "Umntwana uyagula" - the child (he/she) is sick - the u- represents both he and she, and the gender will depend on the noun. There is absolutely no differentiation in sex when writing - for example in pronouns, etc. The only difference between u- meaning you (singular) and u- meaning he/she is in the tone of voice. You is said in a lower tone while he/she is said in a higher tone. Also, ndi- which means I and u- which means you are not separate words which can stand on their own, as in English. They are always attached to the verb and they are an equivalent of the English pronoun.

Also, in English, there are several ways of expressing the present tense - this is not the case in Xhosa. It requires the speaker to develop a feel for the language, for example: 'Ndifunda ukuthetha isiNgesi' which means: 'I am learning to speak English/ I learn to speak English/ I do learn to speak English', etc. There is also the suffix - kazi that can denote the feminine gender, for example: inkosi (chief) - inkosikazi; inja (male dog) - injakazi (female dog); utitshala (male teacher) - utitshalakazi (female teacher), etc.

Since the Xhosa nation has a paradoxical history of a deep-rooted patriarchal tradition, anything that has to do with 'men' is dealt with in a very respectful manner. Xhosa refer to sex differentiation where it bears more importance to the content of the message. Furthermore, certain words which are acceptable in the Western culture pose a problem for translation into Xhosa because they are taboo when translated into equivalent terms. An example of this can be found in sex and sexual related discourses, systemic vilification of homosexuals (homophobia), loss of virginity, human genitalia, HIV/AIDS and related diseases which are regarded as a very private matter in the Xhosa culture and a taboo subject for discussions in general public, particularly for women.

2. Clicks: Another notable difference in the Xhosa language are the clicks which originate from the Khoisan (a commonly used term to denote people formerly known as 'Hottentot' and 'Bushmen'). The three primary clicks are: c, q, x. Basically, Xhosa is a phonetic language, i.e. the letters correspond to the sounds.

3. Plural: The form of indicating plural words is varied and not uniform, hence Xhosa has 15 noun classes. For example, nouns beginning with a particular letter will adopt a certain letter to turn plural. E.g. "umntu" = (person) will become "abantu" = (people). Plural words normally end with 's' in English but in Xhosa we have 'umama' (mother) then oomama (mothers), which also depends on noun classes. There is an exception for nouns like, for example, inja. This is 'a dog' in English but the plural is 'izinja'. However, where Xhosa has a borrowed word like ikhompyutha (computer) - it will be iikhompyutha for 'computers', and ifestile (window - borrowed from Afrikaans 'venster') will be iifestile for 'windows'.

Section Two - Measurements and Abbreviations

1. Measurements: As a substantially underdeveloped language like Sesotho, Xhosa tends to follow the English system of measurement. Thus any item of measurement that is adopted in English is directly applicable and exactly compatible in our language regardless of whether it is for volume, length, height, density, etc. All we do is localise the language.

Numbers: The South African system uses commas to separate decimals for thousands, millions, billions etc. The dot is used for the lesser units (eg. R1, 589.00) = One thousand, five hundred and eighty nine rands.

Time: We use both 12 and 24 hour clock depending on the preference (am/pm and e.g. 24:00 for 12 o'clock midnight). We have no abbreviations of our own language at this stage.

Date: We again have a tendency to simply adopt the English style for expediency. We would, however, write out our date in a more verbal form (e.g. 01/01/2001 would be written out as "1 Januwari 2004"). Of course we have our own names for the months although nothing differs for the numerals.

We do not use a space between figure and measurement abbreviation (20cm). However, it would be too insignificant a difference to argue either way because we do not have an original format derived from our own language rules.

2. Abbreviations:

Equivalent abbreviations:
We have a pathetic dearth of formularised language for the reasons given above, therefore most of the abbreviations taken for granted in English still create problems for us in that we have to literally write out the message within such abbreviations. However, there are a few established ones which are given below:

Njl-njl. (njalo-njalo) = etc.
Nomb. = Number
Dkt. = Doctor
Umz. (umzekelo) = for example
Mnu. (Mnumzana) = Master
Nksk. (Nkosikazi) = Madam
Nksz. (Nkosazana) = Lady

The remaining abbreviations - especially other forms of address - are left as they are in English, e.g. Prof for professor, Messrs, etc.
The same goes for acronyms - we leave them as they are in English, e.g.
Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), UNISA, UCT, UWC, etc.

In general, the Xhosa language is not as yet sufficiently amenable to abbreviations owing to its low level of development.

Section Three - Hyphenation

Hyphens are used to link compound terms and verb pronouns, e.g. umabonwa-kude, which literally means something that can be seen all over (TV).

As in English, a hyphen is also used to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line or to indicate a missing or implied element, e.g. man- (mankind). There are no specified rules for this division.

Section Four - Miscellaneous Peculiarities

Many common Xhosa expressions have more than one meaning: the literal or obvious one and a figurative or symbolic one. The latter enrich the language making it more interesting. Often the arrangement of words in Xhosa cannot be translated literally or directly into English and remain meaningful. When one is aware of this aspect of the language, one starts to get a feel for the Xhosa of the mother-tongue speaker. For example, 'Utyebile' - meaning 'she is fat', also means 'she is rich'.

Giving a child a name is a great event. The child may be named after someone (an ancestor or some other important person) or after any event that coincided with the birth, for example, there are many people named 'Nodemokrasi', for those born after the first democratic elections in SA. Very often the name reflects what the birth of that child means to the parents, e.g. Themba for hope, Sipho for gift, etc. Some masculine/feminine names are derived from the same stem, eg. Themba for a male, Thembeka for a female; Sipho (male) - Siphokazi (female). Feminine names often prefix 'No-': Noxolo (peace); Nosipho (gift); Nomhle (beauty), etc.

Another interesting aspect of Xhosa names is the compounding of words: Thembalethu (our hope), Ntombekhaya (Girl of the home), etc. Surnames are mostly derived from certain words, e.g. Mhlaba (earth), Mfazwe (war), etc. Clan names are also of great importance in the Xhosa culture. A clan is a conceptual kinship group. Members trace their kinship to a common male ancestor. The name of this male ancestor is the clan name - isiduko - and members are usually called by this name. It is a friendly and respectful address used among family and friends. It shows the family into which someone was born, and can be traced back to the oldest male ancestor remembered, e.g. 'Madiba' (Nelson Mandela's clan name) and 'Tshawe' (most of these people are chiefs).

A further aspect of the Xhosa nation is that it was and still is a Xhosa custom for grandmothers and grandfathers to tell their grandchildren folktales. These are told for the purpose of enforcing or supporting some point of family discipline or custom. They uphold conduct that is for the good of society or the welfare of the community.

Section Five - Geographic Distribution

Xhosa belongs to the numerous languages of the Sub-Saharan Bantu family. Within the Bantu family of languages, Xhosa belongs to the Nguni group which also includes Zulu, Swati and Ndebele. The Word XHOSA (isiXhosa: the language, umXhosa: a Xhosa person; amaXhosa: Xhosa people) was the name of a legendary chief. Xhosa is a very heterogeneous and complex language, originating from a large and diversif ied group with many chiefdoms and clans. Xhosa pronunciation and vocabulary were enriched and modified as a result of early and intimate contact with other groups, especially Khoisan tribes.

The Scottish missionaries like John Bennie laid the foundation for the Xhosa orthography, which is still used. Together with Zulu, Xhosa is the most widely spoken language in South Africa. In the Western and Eastern Capes and the Border region, it is the main language spoken. It is also spoken in some parts of the Free State province (where Sesotho is the main language), the Western Transvaal, the Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal (where Zulu predominates) and a bit in Gauteng.

The influence of the Khoi and San, the indigenous herders and hunters of Southern Africa is noticeable in sounds like 'r' and 'rh' (pronounced like the German 'ch' in 'nach'). There are numerous other differences when you compare Xhosa with other African languages, especially the Sotho Group.

Section Six - Character Set

[ ] = Alt key codes

c C
e  E
g G
h H
i (ii- for plural) e.g. itafile > iitafile
(table – tables)
I (Ii-)
n N
o (oo- for plural) e.g. umama > oomama
(mother – mothers)
O (Oo-)
p P
s S
t T

By Wordbank Ltd,
TEL: +44 (0) 20 7903 8800, FAX: +44 (0) 20 7903 8888,


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