X is for Xhosa

Can I complete the whole of Round 9 of ABC Wednesday based on our four week stay in South Africa in February? Click on the photos to enlarge.

Xhosa DancerThere was a black stand-up comedian in Cape Town who told a joke that went something like this:

‘A lot of my white friends ask me if I speak Zulu when I’m at home. You know why they ask that?

‘Because they can’t f*****g well say Xhosa!’

The joke only works if you understand that Xhosa is the major language spoken by black Capetonians and is itself an extremely difficult word to pronounce .

It isn’t pronounced ‘corsa’, as in the car, or ‘khosa’ with the Xh making a coughing sound. The X represents one of several barely audible, but essential clicking sounds that are part of the spoken language.

Xhosa is also a tonal language and the same sequence of consonants and vowels can have different meanings when said with a rising or falling or high or low intonation. That and the click consonants make it very difficult to master.

My daughter managed to learn at least some of the language from her friend Lebo, though she never really mastered the clicking sounds.

Xhosa is one of South Africa’s official languages spoken by 7.9 million people, or 18% of the population.

There are two theories for the origin of the name: one that it came from a legendary leader called uXhosa, the other  that it stems from an earlier language and the word amaXhosa meaning ‘fierce’ or ‘angry’ people.

The Xhosa people originally settled in what is now the Eastern Cape and first came into conflict with Dutch settlers moving east from Cape Town in the 18th century.

Between 1811 and 1812, British forces pushed the Xhosas further east where they also found themselves under pressure from the Zulus to their north.

Ultimately, the various tribes were dispersed under the historical process known as the ‘mfecane’, or ‘scattering’.

The one million or so Xhosa people who live in the Cape Town area were drawn there to find work and despite improvements in housing, many live in poor conditions in the townships.

And, of course, they suffered under the apartheid system that blighted the country for so many years which you can still see remnants of today.

The liquor store in Observatory has two entrances, one where you can browse the selves before making your selection, the other a plain counter.

This comes from the days when, if you were black, you couldn’t just buy what you liked and had to get your drink by handing over a chit at the counter.

Many of the locals still prefer this system for its anonymity so they are not seen choosing the cheapest alcohol from the shelves.

Notable Xhosas include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former president Thabo Mbeki and, most famous of all, Nelson Mandela.

The photos from this post are my favourites taken in South Africa and show local children dancing in Cape Town city centre one memorable Sunday afternoon.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

17 comments… Add yours
  • rog 28th December 2011

    Somehow, I KNEW this would be your X word. Well chosen.

  • VioletSky 28th December 2011

    This was an excellent choice for your themed alphabet this time.
    Almost done!

  • photowannabe 28th December 2011

    Well done and interesting information. I had no idea it was so involved.

  • Shooting Parrots 28th December 2011

    I guess I did telegraph my choice for the letter X in previous posts Roger.

  • Kim 28th December 2011

    I am trying to learn a little Vietnamese before a trip to Vietnam, but this sounds even harder – tones AND clicks!

  • Oakland Daily Photo 28th December 2011

    If you got an X on this trip then there’s no doubt you’ll accomplish your goal. Only two more letters to go. Easy peasy.

  • Elizabeth 28th December 2011

    Molo. Those photographs are so joyful. x

  • chrisj 29th December 2011

    I had a friend from South Africa who spoke the Xhosa language. Sadly he died a few years ago. I see you know Elizabeth and she attended the same college as this friend when he was in England. So….maybe…. just in case there is some amazing link there….his name was Harry Oosthuyzen.

    • Mac Oosthuyzen 30th April 2013

      Hi Chris, I know this was posted some 18 months ago, but Harry Oosthuyzen was my uncle. Elizabeth is one of his daughters. Harry lived in a small town called Kentani in the Trankie region of South Africa. He was a missionary who did amazing works for the poor.

  • Shooting Parrots 29th December 2011

    Wamkelekile everyone. Chris, it would indeed be an amazing coincidence if I knew Harry Oosthuyzen, but I’m afraid not.

  • rhymeswithplague 29th December 2011

    Back when I first heard about the Xhosa people and language, in the days when Miriam Makeba first became popular, I remember the word being spelled in a special way that indicated the clicks: !Xhosa

    Or perhaps I am hallucinating again….

  • Andy 31st December 2011

    I’ve learned another “X” word that I’ll have to save in my library for another round (smile).
    Fascinating information & great photos.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Denise 31st December 2011

    I am impressed – as always!
    Happy New Year.
    Denise ABC Team

  • Albert Bernard 31st December 2011

    I first heard about the Xhosa people and language, in the days when Miriam Makeba first became popular, I remember the word being spelled in a special way that indicated the clicks: !Xhosa, thanks for the post.

  • zongrik 31st December 2011

    great choice

    happy new year

    ornamented joshua

  • Francisca 4th January 2012

    Shame on me for forgetting Xhosa a few weeks back when I predicted Zulu would be on your list this round. True, I can’t f%^&#ing say Xhosa either, but I can write it! LOL! Wanting to hear it, I went looking for a video for “How to Pronounce…” at YouTube, but Xhosa was absent in the series. I did, however, find this super Miriam Makeba song which she prefaced with pretty much the same cussing line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3m_TEq2E4cs. I agree these are your best shots so far (and the post processing is perfect!). Xcellent post!

  • Mr Parrot 4th January 2012

    Thanks for your comments on the photos. I desaturated the background to emphasise the children. I particularly liked the last one. It was only when I saw the photo later that I realised the boy was pulling his tongue out at me!


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