The Languages of Namibia

Namibia is a large country in south-west Africa that has been independent from its neighbour South Africa since 1990. Before that it was a German colony between 1884 and the First World War, and pre-colonially it was inhabited by Khoisan tribespeople, later joined by Bantu. With less than 2.5 million inhabitants in a country covering more than 800,000 km2, it’s also one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.

Himba woman, Namibia

Himba woman, Namibia

Ethnologue lists 27 individual languages for Namibia, all of which are classed as living, and 22 of which are indigenous. Almost half the population speak the Bantu language Oshiwambo, or one of the eight dialects thereof. Other Bantu languages spoken include Kavango, (Otij)Herero and Caprivian (aka Lozi, whose spoken form places strong emphasis on social status),  TswanaGcirikuFweKuhaneMbukushu, and Yeyi. Khoisan dialects spoken include Nama (aka Khoekhoe and formerly known derogatorily as ‘Hottentot’),  NaroKung-Ekoka, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein.

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Map of language distribution in Namibia

Linguistically Namibia’s colonial heritage means that both German and especially Afrikaans are spoken and understood (especially by the white population), as they were the country’s official languages until 1990; Afrikaans is somewhat of a lingua franca. Portuguese is also spoken in the far north due to proximity with Angola. Although only 1% to 3% of the population speaks English as a mother tongue, at independence the ruling party decided to institute English as the sole official language in order to avoid tribal divisions and the colonial overtones which stigmatise German and Afrikaans. The idea was to harmonise the country and avoid “ethnolinguistic fragmentation”. English is widely used in the civil service, education and the broadcasting system and it helps with international relations, as English-language materials are the most easily available; it’s also the language of instruction in schools from secondary level onwards. However this monolingual policy has resulted in a high rate of school drop-outs and in individuals whose academic competence in any language is low.

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Driving across Namibia

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists Khwe (Kxoe) as a ‘definitely endangered’ language, with only 5,000 speakers in 2000, however Ethnologue considers it as ‘developing’ and lists Mashi, Mbalanhu and !Xóõ as threatened languages.

A pup at Cape Cross seal colony

A pup at Cape Cross seal colony

Incidentally Khoisan dialects feature clicking sounds (created by slapping the tongue against the teeth, palate or side of the mouth). In writing these are represented by ! ,/, //, or ‡. On my recent visit to Namibia I found it fascinating to listen to; here’s a short video of a San bushmen explaining how to capture a porcupine.

Further reading:

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My travel blog articles about Namibia can be found here.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: The Sukumu of Tanzania – Africa Defined

  2. Pingback: Do language-learning tips work for Oromo? I was surprised! (pt. 2) – Loving Language

  3. The article mentioned Namibia’s proximity to Angola. It’s worth noting that for years, South Africa’s apartheid government not only used the Namibians as slaves for the diamond mines, but also used Namibia as a launching point for an invasion of the newly independent Angola in 1975, where they supported the thuggish UNITA party. In response, Cuban troops came in to support the MPLA.

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