Taa Language
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Taa Language
?Khong, ?Xóõ
Taa ?aan / Tâa ?âã  (?Xóõ)
Native toBotswana, Namibia
RegionSouthern Ghanzi, northern Kgalagadi, western Southern and western Kweneng districts in Botswana; southern Omaheke and northeastern Hardap regions in Namibia.
Native speakers
2,500 (2011)[1]
  • Taa-Lower Nossob
    • Taa
Language codes
Khoisan languages historical.PNG
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.

Taa , also known as ?Xóõ [3] (also spelled ?Khong and ?Xoon; Taa pronunciation: [:?])[4] is a Tuu language notable for its large number of phonemes, perhaps the largest in the world.[5] It is also notable for having perhaps the heaviest functional load of click consonants, with one count finding that 82% of basic vocabulary items started with a click.[6] Most speakers live in Botswana, but a few hundred live in Namibia. The people call themselves ?Xoon (pl. ?Xoo?ake) or 'N?ohan (pl. N?umde), depending on the dialect they speak. The Tuu languages are one of the three traditional language families that make up the Khoisan languages.

Taa is the word for 'human being'; the local name of the language is Taa ?aan (Tâa ?âã), from ?aan 'language'. ?Xoon (?Xóõ) is an ethnonym used at opposite ends of the Taa-speaking area, but not by Taa speakers in between.[7] Most living Taa speakers are ethnic ?Xoon (plural ?Xoo?ake) or 'N?ohan (plural N?umde).[8]

Taa shares a number of characteristic features with West ?'Amkoe and G?ui, which together are considered part of the Kalahari Basin sprachbund.[9]


Until the rediscovery of a few elderly speakers of N?ng in the 1990s, Taa was thought to be the last surviving member of the Tuu language family.


There is sufficient dialectal variation in Taa that it might be better described as a dialect continuum than as a single language. Taa dialects fall into two groups, suggesting a historical spread from west to east:[10]

  • West Taa: Traill's West ?Xoon and Dorothea Bleek's N?u?'en
  • East Taa
    • ?Ama (Western)
    • (Eastern)
      • East ?Xoon (Lone Tree)
      • Tsaasi-?Huan
        • Tsaasi
        • ?Huan

Traill worked primarily with East ?Xoon, and the DoBeS project is working with 'N?ohan (in East Taa) and West ?Xoon.

?'Auni and Ki?hazi, previously considered dialects of Taa, were more divergent than the dialects here, and are now classified as a distinct language, Lower Nossob.

Alternate names

The various dialects and social groups of the Taa, their many names, the unreliability of transcriptions found in the literature, and the fact that names may be shared between languages and that dialects have been classified, has resulted in a great deal of confusion. Traill (1974), for example, spent two chapters of his Compleat Guide to the Koon [sic] disentangling names and dialects.[11]

The name ?Xoon (more precisely ?Xóõ) is only used at Aminius Reserve in Namibia, around Lone Tree where Traill primarily worked, and at Dzutshwa (Botswana). It is, however, used by the ?Xoon for all Taa speakers. It has been variously spelled ?x?, ?k:, ?ko/?kõ, Khong, and the fully anglicized Koon.

Bleek's N?u?'en dialect[12] has been spelled ?Nu?en, ?Nu?e?n, Ng?u?en, Nguen, N?hu?éi, uin, ui, u?en, ?u?en. It has also been called by the ambiguous Khoekhoe term N?usan (N?u-san, Ns?, N?uusaa, N?husi), sometimes rendered Nusan or Noosan, which has been used for other languages in the area. A subgroup was known as Koon [k:]. This dialect is apparently extinct.

Bleek recorded another now-extinct variety at the town of Khakhea, and it is known in the literature as Kakia. Names with a tee: Katia, Kattea, Khatia, and Xatia, are apparently spelling variants of Kakia, though this is not certain. Vaalpens, ?Kusi, and ?Eikusi evidently refer to the same variety as Xatia.

Westphal studied a variety rendered amani, ?namani, Ng?amani, amasa. This dialect is apparently also now extinct.

Westphal also studied ?Huan (?h?a) dialect (or ?H?a-?wani), and used this name for the entire language. However, the term is ambiguous between Taa (Western ?H?a) and ?'Amkoe (Eastern ?H?a), and for this reason Traill chose to call the language ?Xóõ.

Tsaasi dialect is quite similar to ?Huan, and like ?Huan, the name is used ambiguously for a dialect of ?'Amkoe. This is a Tswana name, variously rendered Tshasi, Tshase, T?ase, Tsase, Sasi, and Sase.

The Tswana term for Bushmen, Masarwa, is frequently encountered. More specific to the Taa are Magon (Magong) and the Tshasi mentioned above.

The Taa distinguish themselves along at least some of the groups above. Like many San peoples, they also distinguish themselves by the environment they live in (plain people, river people, etc.), and also by direction. Traill reports the following:[11]

?ama âni "westerners"
?h?ã âni "southerners"
?qh?a âni "in-betweeners"
tùu n?hns "pure people"

Heinz reports that ?xóõ is an exonym given by other Bushmen, and that the Taa call themselves ?xoia.

The Taa refer to their language as tâa ?âã "people's language". Westphal (1971) adopted the word tâa "person" as the name for the Southern Khoisan language family, which is now called Tuu.[11] The East ?Xoon term for the language is ?xó?a ?âã IPA: [ ?a? ?ã: ].[13]


Taa has at least 58 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones (Traill 1985, 1994 on East ?Xoon), or at least 87 consonants, 20 vowels, and two tones (DoBeS 2008 on West ?Xoon), by many counts the most of any known language if non-oral vowel qualities are counted as different from corresponding oral vowels.[14] These include 20 (Traill) or 43 (DoBeS) click consonants and several vowel phonations, though opinions vary as to which of the 130 (Traill) or 164 (DoBeS) consonant sounds are single segments and which are consonant clusters.


Anthony Traill describes four tones for the East ?Xoon dialect: high [á], mid [?], low [à], and mid-falling [â]. Patterns for bisyllabic bases include high-high, mid-mid, mid-mid-falling, and low-low. DoBeS describes only two tonemes, high and low, for the West ?Xoon dialect. By analyzing each base as bimoraic, Traill's four tones are mapped onto [áá], [àá], [àà], and [áà]. Unlike Traill, Naumann does not find a four-way contrast on monomoraic grammatical forms in Eastern ?Xoõ data.[15]

In addition to lexical tone, Traill describes East ?Xoon nouns as falling into two tone classes according to the melody induced on concordial morphemes and transitive verbs: either level (Tone Class I) or falling (Tone Class II).[13] Transitive object nouns from Tone Class I trigger mid/mid-rising tone in transitive verbs, while Tone Class 2 objects correlate with any tone contour. Naumann finds the same results in the eastern 'N?ohan dialect.[15]


Taa has five vowel qualities, [a e i o u]. The Traill and DoBeS descriptions differ in the phonations of these vowels; it is not clear if this reflects a dialectal difference or a difference of analysis.

East ?Xoon (Traill)

Traill describes the phonations of the East ?Xoon dialect as plain ⟨a⟩, murmured ⟨ah⟩, or glottalized ⟨a'⟩. [a o u] may also be both glottalized and murmured ⟨a'h⟩, as well as pharyngealized ⟨a?⟩/⟨aq⟩ or strident ('sphincteric') ⟨a?h⟩/⟨aqh⟩. [a u] may be both pharyngealized and glottalized ⟨a?'⟩, for 26 vowels not counting nasalization or length.

Murmured vowels after plain consonants contrast with plain vowels after aspirated consonants, and likewise glottalized vowels with ejective consonants, so these are phonations of the vowels and not assimilation with consonant phonation.

Vowels may be long or short, but long vowels may be sequences rather than distinct phonemes. The other vowel quality sequences--better known as diphthongs--disregarding the added complexity of phonation, are [ai, ae, ao, au, oi, oe, oa, ou, ui, ue, ua].

All plain vowels may be nasalized. No other phonation may be nasalized, but nasalization occurs in combination with other phonations as the second vowel of a sequence ("long vowel" or "diphthong"). These sequences alternate dialectally with vowel plus velar nasal. That is, the name ?Xóõ may be dialectally [k?xó?], and this in turn may be phonemically /k?xó?/, since [?] does not occur word-finally. However, this cannot explain the short nasal vowels, so Taa has at least 31 vowels.

A long, glottalized, murmured, nasalized o with falling tone is written ⟨ô'hõ⟩. A long, strident nasalized o with low tone is written ⟨òqhõ⟩, since Traill analyzes stridency as phonemically pharyngealized murmur. (Note that phonetically these are distinct phonations.)

West ?Xoon (DoBeS)

DoBeS describes the phonations of the West ?Xoon dialect as plain, a e i o u; nasalized, an en in on un; epiglottalized or pharyngealized, aq eq iq oq uq; strident, aqh eqh iqh oqh uqh; and glottalized or 'tense', a' e' i' o' u'.


Taa is unusual in allowing mixed voicing in its consonants. These have been analyzed as prevoiced, but also as consonant clusters. When homorganic, as in [dt], such clusters are listed in the chart below.

Taa consonants are complex, and it is not clear how much of the difference between the dialects is real and how much is an artifact of analysis.

East ?Xoon (Traill)

East ?Xoon dialect: Non-click consonants (Traill 2018)[16]
Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
voiced b d? dz (?) ? ? []
tenuis (p) t? ts k q ?
voiceless aspirated (p?) t ts? k? q?
prevoiced aspirated ?d ?d?s? (?) (?) [q?]
velarized (p?) t ts?
prevoiced velarized[17] ?d ?d?s?
voiceless ejective (t?') ts' (k') (q')
ejective cluster[18] (p'k?') t?'k?' ts'k?' kx'
prevoiced ejective[19] ?d'k?' ?d?s'k?' x'
Fricative voiceless (f) s x (h)
Nasal voiced m n? -?- -?
glottalized ?m ?n
Other -?- -l- -j-

Consonants in parentheses are rare.

The nasal [?] only occurs between vowels, and [?] only word finally (and then only in some dialects, for what are nasal vowels elsewhere), so these may be allophones. [?], [l], [j] also only occur in medial position, except that the last is an allophone of rare initial [?]. [d?] and [w](not in the table) occur in loans, mostly English.

Taa is typologically unusual in having mixed-voice ejectives. Ju?'hoansi, which is part of the same sprachbund as Taa, has mixed voicing in [d?t?, d?t, d?ts'].[20]

Taa may have as few as 83 click sounds, if the more complex clicks are analyzed as clusters. Given the intricate clusters posited seen in the non-click consonants, it is not surprising that many of the Taa clicks should be analyzed as clusters. However, there is some debate whether these are actually clusters; all non-Khoisan languages in the world that have clusters allow clusters with sonorants like r, l, w, j (as in English tree, sleep, quick, cue), and this does not occur in Taa.

There are five click articulations: bilabial, dental, lateral, alveolar, and palatal. There are nineteen series, differing in phonation, manner, and complexity (see airstream contour). These are perfectly normal consonants in Taa, and indeed are preferred over non-clicks in word-initial position.

East ?Xoon dialect: Click consonants (Traill 2018)[16]
noisy clicks sharp' clicks manner, along with speaker or dialect variation DoBeS cluster
Miller (2011)
k? k? k? k? k? Weak tenuis [k] release k? ?[22]
Voiced velar [?] throughout the hold of the click
?q ?q ?q ?q ?q Released as a tenuis uvular stop [q] that is delayed considerably beyond the release of the click k? + q q
Prenasalized [?], with a voiced uvular release [?] k? + ? ?
h h h h h Voiced lead with delayed aspiration (phonemically voiced lead with simple aspiration) + q?
?q? ?q? ?q? ?q? Cineradiology shows that the articulation is indeed uvular [q?] k? + q? ?* q?
(q?) (q?) (q?) (q?) "Prenasalization with a uvular nasal [?] and a brief uvular stop before the click, which is followed by an aspirated uvular stop" + ?q?
?x k k k k Voiceless velar affricate [kx] release, considerably fricative k? + x q?
Voiced lead which ceases before the release of the click, like ?kx. In some dialects, voiced throughout: [g]. + x
?k?' ?k?' ?k?' ?k?' ?k?' Released into [k?'] or [k'q], depending on dialect k? + kx' kx'
k?' k?' k?' k?' k?' Voiced lead, [k?'] or [k'q] release + kx' kx'
k k k k k Silent release, followed after some delay by the release of a glottal stop [?] k? + ?
?q' ?q' ?q' ?q' ?q' Released as an unaffricated uvular ejective [q'] q'
n n n n n Voiceless nasal airflow [] throughout the hold of the click
n? n? n? n? n? Voiced velar nasal airflow [?] throughout the hold of the click
?n? ?n? ?n? ?n? ?n? Preglottalized nasal [], "best described as a click superimposed on the sequence [] ... the release of the click is immediately after a brief period of [?]" k? + m?/n?
h h h h h Delayed aspiration: inaudible release followed by crescendo aspiration.[23] k? + h ?

The DoBeS project takes Traill's cluster analysis to mean that only the twenty tenuis, voiced, nasal, and voiceless nasal clicks are basic, with the rest being clusters of the tenuis and voiced clicks with x, kx', q, ?, q?, ?q?, q', ?, h and either m? or n?. Work on Taa's sister language N?ng suggests that all clicks in both languages have a uvular or rear articulation, and that the clicks considered to be uvular here are actually lingual-pulmonic and lingual-glottalic airstream contours. It may be that the 'prevoiced' consonants of Taa, including prevoiced clicks, can also be analyzed as contour consonants, in this case with voicing contours.

* DoBeS only matches 17 series to Traill, as the ?k?-?q? and ?k'-?q' distinctions he discovered had not yet been published. DoBeS ⟨?h⟩ and ⟨?qh⟩, respectively, correspond to the former pair, while ⟨?'⟩ and ⟨?''⟩ (presumably in that order, as uvular clicks tend to have a delayed release) correspond to the latter pair.

Traill's account of East ?Xoon leaves for voiceless series of clicks without equivalents with a voiced lead. The DoBeS account of West West ?Xoon, which uses voicing for morphological derivation to a greater extent than East ?Xoon does, has four additional series, written n?'', g?', g?q' and n?hh in their practical orthography. The first three match the unpaired glottalized series of Traill, (= ), ?k', ?q'. If Traill's h series is the voiced equivalent of plain aspirated , rather than delayed aspirated, that would leave the DobeS n?hh series as voiced delayed aspiration.

All nasal clicks have twin airstreams, since the air passing through the nose bypasses the tongue. Usually this is pulmonic egressive. However, the ?h series in Taa is characterized by pulmonic ingressive nasal airflow. Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:268) state that "This ?Xóõ click is probably unique among the sounds of the world's languages that, even in the middle of a sentence, it may have ingressive pulmonic airflow." Taa is the only language known to contrast voiceless nasal and voiceless nasal aspirated (i.e. delayed aspirated) clicks (Miller 2011).

West ?Xoon (DoBeS)

West ?Xoon has 164 consonants in a strict unit analysis, including 111 clicks in 23 series, which under a cluster analysis reduce to 87 consonants, including 43 clicks.

These are written in the practical orthography (Naumann 2008).[24] Marginal consonants are not marked as such.

West ?Xoon dialect (DoBeS 2008): Consonants
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal Click[22]
Plosive voiced b d d?z ? g?
tenuis p t t?s k q ? ?
aspirated p? t? ts? k? q? ?h
voiced aspirated b? d? d?z? g?h
ejective p' t' t?s' k' q' q' ?'
voiced 'ejective' d?z? g?'
Fricative voiceless f s ? ?
Nasal voiced m n ? ? n?
voiceless nh?
glottalized ?m ?n 'n?
Approximant w l j
"Intermittent" ?

Vowel nasalization is only phonemic on the second mora (in CCVV etc. syllables), as it is a phonetic effect of the ⟨n?hh⟩ clicks on the first mora. The ⟨n?hh⟩ clicks do not make the following vowel breathy, maintaining a contrast between ⟨n?hha⟩ and ⟨n?hhah⟩. Likewise, while ⟨g?'⟩ clicks do make the following vowel creaky, there is a delayed onset to the vowel and the amplitude of the glottalization of ⟨g?'a'⟩ is less than that of ⟨g?a'⟩ with a phonemically creaky vowel.

In an attempt to keep the phonemic inventory as symmetric as possible, the DoBeS team analyzed as segments two of the click types that Traill analyzed as clusters. These are the pre-glottalized nasal clicks, 'n?, which Traill had analyzed as /?/ + /'n/, and the voiced aspirated clicks, g?h, which Traill had analyzed as // + /q?/.

The expectation, from the morphology of ?Xoon, for voiceless-voiced pairs of click clusters led to the discovery of several series not distinguished by Traill. (This morphology appears to be more pervasive in West ?Xoon than in the East ?Xoon dialect that Traill worked on.) These are voiced click types which may not exist in East ?Xoon at all, namely n?'', n?hh, g?', and g?q'. It also lead to the rediscovery of two series that Traill had not been able to publish before his death. Thus the DoBeS team distinguishes two series, ?qh and ?h, for Trail's ?qh and ?kh, as well as ?'' and ?' for Traill's ?q' and ?k' (or perhaps vice versa). If Traill's ?kh series is to be analyzed as k? + h, then that would require a different assessment of Traill's delayed-aspiration series.

Under the contour analysis of Miller (2009), the distinction between simple and contour clicks largely parallels the DoBeS identification of clusters, apart from the last four rows (?'', n?'', ?hh, n?hh), which are considered to be simple clicks.


The Taa syllable structure, as described by DoBeS, may be one of the following:

  • CVV
  • CCVV
  • CVC2V
  • CCVC2V
  • CVN
  • CCVN

where C is a consonant, V is a vowel, and N is a nasal stop. There is a very limited number of consonants which can occur in the second (C2) position and only certain vowel sequences (VV and V...V) occur. The possible consonant clusters (CC) is covered above; C2 may be [b~], [d?~j], [l], [m], [n], [?].


Taa is a subject-verb-object language with serial verbs and inflecting prepositions. Genitives, adjectives, relative clauses, and numbers come after the nouns they apply to. Reduplication is used to form causatives. There are five nominal agreement classes and an additional two tone groups. Agreement occurs on pronouns, transitive verbs (with the object), adjectives, prepositions, and some particles.


Taa has only three native numbers. All numbers above three are loans from Tswana or Kgalagadi.[25]

1 - ûã

2 - ?nûm

3 - ?âe


The phrases from Eastern ?Xóõ were compiled by Anthony Traill:

?n?ù.? ì à ?'à-be ?ù.m ?àa sâa
Hare.14 1PRO PST take:S-3 Eland.3 child:34 thither
"As for Hare, she took Eland's child away."
?qháa? k? ?nûm ûlitê dtxó?lu ?nàe ?'á s?àa?
give MPO:4PRO two genital:22-P ASS:3 stench:3 DAT:3PRO COM:2 fat:22
"Give them their stinking genitals with the fat!"[]


  1. ^ Taa at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Taa". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Alan Barnard (...) Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa, p.xxii.
  4. ^ The Taa pronunciation of "?Xóõ" can be heard in this recording, repeated from 0?16? to 0?24?.
  5. ^ Click languages
  6. ^ See Sands & Gunnink (2019) "Clicks on the fringes of the Kalahari Basin Area." In Clem et al. (eds), Theory and Description in African Linguistics: Selected Papers from the 47th Annual Conference on African Linguistics. Language Science Press, Berlin, pp. 703-724.
  7. ^ Gertrud Boden, 2007, ?Qamtee ?aa ?Xanya: 'the Book of Traditions' : Histories, Texts and Illustrations from the ?Xoon and 'N?ohan People of Namibia
  8. ^ DoBeS, "Taa".
  9. ^ Güldemann, Tom; Fehn, Anne-Maria (2015). "The Kalahari Basin area as a "Sprachbund" before the Bantu expansion - an update". Online.
  10. ^ Naumann (2011) "A preliminary classification of Taa dialects".
  11. ^ a b c Yvonne Treis, 1998, "Names of Khoisan Languages and their Variants"
  12. ^ Distinguish ?Ng ?'e, a form of N?ng, and 'e, which is related to Seroa.
  13. ^ a b Traill (1994)
  14. ^ Otherwise Taa has only five vowel phonemes. Jinhui dialect has largest oral vowel quality inventory but has much fewer non-oral qualities than Taa.
  15. ^ a b Naumann, Christfried. "High and low tone in Taa (?Xóõ)". hdl:1839/00-0000-0000-000D-6F3E-9@view. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)[dead link]
  16. ^ a b William Bennett (forthcoming) 'Click Phonology', in Sands (ed.) Click Consonants, Brill, p. 102 ff.
  17. ^ voiced lead, voiceless at release
  18. ^ The final element of all of these varies dialectically between [kx'] and [kx'q].
  19. ^ "There is voice lead followed by an ejected stop followed by an ejected velar affricate. k?' is [k?'] or [k?'q]."
  20. ^ Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 63, 80-81. ISBN 978-0-631-19815-4.
  21. ^ Miller, Amanda (2011). "The Representation of Clicks". In van Oostendorp, M.; Ewen, C.; Hume, E.; Rice, K. (eds.). The Blackwell Companion to Phonology. 1. Blackwell Publishing. p. 434. ISBN 9781405184236.
  22. ^ a b ?⟩ is a wildcard letter for any click, or in this context any click articulation.
  23. ^ Inaudibility achieved "by a complex venting of the pulmonic pressure (Traill 1992). In fast speech the venting may sometimes be accompanied by a brief period of nasalization of the vowel and an intrusive velar nasal preceding the click." Ladefoged characterized them as ingressive voiceless nasal airflow [] with delayed aspiration.
  24. ^ Naumann, Christfied (2008), "The Consonantal System of West ?Xoon", 3rd International Symposium on Khoisan Languages and Linguistics, Riezlern
  25. ^ "Numbers in ?Xóõ".
  • Traill, Anthony (1985). Phonetic and Phonological Studies of ?Xóõ Bushman. Hamburg: Helmut Buske. ISBN 3-87118-669-4.
  • Traill, Anthony (1994). A ?Xóõ Dictionary. (Quellen zur Khoisan-Forschung, vol. 9). Köln: Rüdiger Köppe. pp. 23. ISBN 3-927620-56-4.
  • Anthony Traill (2018). A Trilingual ?Xóõ Dictionary. ?Xóõ-English-Setswana. Ed. Hirosi Nakagawa & Anderson Chebanne. (Research in Khoisan Studies, 37.) Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.

External links

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