Monday, July 25, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Namibia

It's been a while since we've done a profile on an African country, so today we thought we'd explore the linguistic diversity of Namibia, a large country in southern Africa.

The Official Language

Namibia is home to quite a few languages, but only one of them has official status: English. However, although it is the official language, it is only the native language of about 130,000 of the over 2 million people living in Namibia. Although it's rarely spoken at home, it is widely used in education and broadcasting.

Before Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, German and Afrikaans also had official status in the area, but the new government decided to just stick with English. In any case, both languages are still widely spoken in the country. There are over 200,000 native speakers of Afrikaans in Namibia, as well as over 7,000 native German speakers.

Other Languages

At any rate, we're much more interested in Namibia's many indigenous languages. The most spoken indigenous languages in Namibia belong to the Oshiwambo (or Ovambo) dialect cluster. They include the Ndonga standardized dialect, which is the native language of about 700,000 Namibians. There's also Kwanyama, a standardized dialect which is used by over 580,000 Namibians, and the Kwambi dialect, which is the native language of 30,000 people. Namibia is also home to 200 speakers of the Mbalanhu language.

The Namib Desert in NamibRand Nature Reserve.
Another big language is Khoekhoe. You may have heard of it before under the name "Hottentot", which was used by Dutch settlers. However, the term is no longer used because it is considered to be derogatory, as it was created as an imitation of what the Dutch thought the language sounded like. In any case, Khoekhoe is the native language of approximately 200,000 people, while the closely related Haiǁom language is spoken by about 16,000 Namibians.

Many of Namibia's indigenous languages belong to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo language family. The most spoken Bantu languages in Namibia include Kwangali with over 150,000 native speakers, Herero with over 60,000, and Kuhane and Lozi, which are both used by over 20,000 people. Other Bantu languages with fewer speakers include Zemba, Diriku, Fwe, Mbukushu, Yeyi, Tswana, and Mashi.

There are also two members of the Khoe language group used in Namibia: Naro and Khwe. There are about 4,000 native Khwe speakers in Namibia, as well as around 2,000 Naro speakers.

We're also quite fascinated by languages like Northwestern !Kung, which is famous for its clicks and boasts over 50,000 native speakers. It is closely related to Juǀʼhoan and Ekoka Kung!, other members of the !Kung dialect continuum, with about 25,000 and 9,000 native speakers respectively.

Last but not least, there's Xóõ, which is used by about 500 Namibians. It is particularly interesting to linguists because it has so many phonemes, perhaps the most of any language in the world! Linguists disagree as to exactly how many it has, but it could have anywhere between 58 and 87 consonants, not to mention 20 to 31 vowels and at least two tones!