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10 things you didn’t know about Xhosa language

Spoken mostly in South Africa, but also in Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and other areas in southern Africa, Xhosa is an interesting language with an even more interesting history.

It’s also one of the most recognizable Bantu languages, mainly due to the prominence of its click consonants and its intense use of the letter “x,” used to denote some of the clicks.

Here are 10 things you should know about Xhosa language.

1. About 18% of South Africans speak Xhosa
The 18 percent of South Africans who speak Xhosa amounts to approximately 7.6 million people. While many don’t consider it their mother tongue, it is still a very common language throughout the country.

2. The Bantu people are believed to have been a part of one of the largest mass migrations in human history
Xhosa has its origins in the tribal group descended from the Bantu, who originated in present-day Cameroon and Nigeria and migrated south between 2000 B.C. and 1000 A.D. Following the migration, the people divided into two language groups – Eastern and Western – early in their history.

3. Xhosa is the most widely distributed African language in South Africa
Although the most widely spoken Bantu language is Zulu, Xhosa is the most widely distributed. It is spoken most commonly in the Eastern Cape, but is also very prominent in the Western Cape. An additional million-or-so Xhosa speakers are scattered throughout the other provinces.

4. The language borrows from many others
An estimated 15 percent of Xhosa is of San origin, which is attributed to the strong historical contact between the two tribes. (The San are one of 14 known population clusters from which all known modern humans descend.) The Xhosa language also hosts a collection of borrowed words from Afrikaans and English.

5. Xhosa was legislated by the Bantu Education Act of 1953
The use of Xhosa in education was previously governed by apartheid-era legislation. The role of African language in South African education has since improved, but remains complex and ambiguous.

6. The Cape Frontier Wars had an enormous impact on the Xhosa language
The Xhosa people engaged in wars with European colonial powers, specifically the British and Dutch, from 1778 to 1878. Following their defeat, their land was annexed. It was at this time that Xhosa became a written language in the Latin alphabet.

7. The first Xhosa Bible translation was made in 1859
Another sign of the colonial influence was the first Xhosa Bible translation, produced by Henry Hare Dugmore in 1859.

8. “Nkosi Sikelil’ iAfrika,” a Xhosa anthem, was the anthem of several different countries
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (“Lord Bless Africa” in Xhosa), was originally composed as a hymn in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, a Xhosa clergyman at a Methodist mission school near Johannesburg. It has since become the anthem of Tanzania and Zambia, and is the former anthem of Zimbabwe and Namibia. The South African anthem had additional stanzas added to it as time went on, and also had versions that were translated into Zulu, Sotho, and Afrikaans.

9. Xhosa was introduced to pop culture through the vocal stylings of Miriam Makeba
Grammy Award-winning South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, helped introduce Xhosa to an international audience with her 1957 hit single, “Pata Pata.” It was one of the first mainstream moments for Xhosa. In an interview she gave in 1979, Makeba discussed the experience of sharing her language with the rest of the world. “Everywhere we go, people often ask me, ‘How do you make that noise?’” she said. “It used to offend me because it isn’t a noise. It’s my language.” (Source:

10. Xhosa literature has long addressed the political struggles of South Africans
Many authors have explored the political struggles of the Xhosa people in their work. A.C. Jordan’s “Ingqumbo yeminyanya” (“The Wrath of the Ancestors,” 1940), explored the impact of Western colonialism. Guybon Sinxo’s 1922 novel “uNomsa,” examined the dangers of urban life in Africa.

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