Calamaish Books

Resources: Pawns in a Larger Game


 Pronunciation of Xhosa Names of People and Places

The Xhosa language is difficult for native English speakers. Pawns in a Larger Game is replete with Xhosa names which can leave readers at a loss. Like Zulu and the almost extinct languages of the San people it contains clicks and gutturals that are nearly impossible for English tongues. Miriam Makeba's famous click song is an easily found example. This brief description is not aimed at linguists but at readers who would like to make a stab at the pronunciation.

Xhosa vowel sounds

There are basically just five vowel sounds in Xhosa:
All vowels get full value. Pronounce them all.

The Clicks

There are three basic clicks
These clicks are not vocalised i.e. the vocal chords are not operating while you pronounce them.
The basic clicks may be modified if there is a "G" or"NG" in front of them. If this is at the beginning of the word you can make an approximation to the sound by vocalising the click. As you make it your vocal chords must produce a sound.
If you want to give up now you will have to follow thousands of linguistically challenged monoglots and pronounce the non vocalised clicks as "K" and the vocalised ones as hard "G".

The guttural R

There is no "R" sound in Xhosa. The letter "R" has been appropriated to represent a guttural sound like the "ch" in Scottish "loch" only stronger, much more like the Afrikaans "G". You must really clear your throat. If you drive along the N2 in the Transkei beside the road between Mount Frere and Mount Ayliff there is a building with a rusted corrugated iron roof and the faded legend "Rode" on it. This is not a misspelling of "Road" but a remnant of the old Rhode or Rode mission and it is pronounced "CH-O-DEH" with the "ch" as in "loch".

The aspirated H

The word "Xhosa" used to be spelled "Xosa". To the uneducated ear, if a Xhosa speaker pronounced both those words as spelt they would sound the same. The "h" actually means that the click is slightly aspirated; as the click is made some air is exhaled as a whisper. In the same way in "Bhaca" there is a slightly aspirated "B". The "TH" combination is not sounded as in English. The name "Thabo"  is pronounced "T-ah-bo" with the T aspirated.,

Putting it together

Actually, pronouncing the clicks and gutturals is not that difficult. The hard part is joining them smoothly to the following vowel so that "Xhosa" doesn't sound like "X" pause "osa". It needs practice. Try the following that occur in the book:
Gcaleka:  The Xhosa king, pronounced Gcah-leh-kah with a vocalized c-click at the beginning.
Gqunukwhebe: The tribe, pronounced Gqoo-noo-kweh-beh. A vocalized q-click at the beginning and aspiration of the  "kw"
Cicira: A place, pronounced Ci-ci-chah. Soft c-clicks and the "ch" as in "loch".
Nxele: The great war doctor pronounced Nxeh-leh (vocalized x-click.)
Some places: Xora; Qora; Qolora; Cala. Pronounce the clicks

Some remarks on the Xhosa language

Endnote 10 in Pawns in a Larger Game states the following:
The linguistic division into Xhosa and Zulu is an arbitrary one, not justified by the languages then spoken. At this time the Zulu and Xhosa languages had not been formalized: even today they are mutually comprehensible and differ less than broad Scots and Home Counties English. The language spoken in the region stretching from the Eastern Cape to Natal was a continuum of mutually comprehensible dialects of the Nguni group of languages. Zulu and Xhosa orthography and grammar were separately formalized in Natal and the Cape, largely by missionaries. A different history might have resulted in a single received standard Nguni language [Branford, 1992]. Only 80 years ago J. H. Soga, son of J. F. Cumming’s Xhosa protege Tiyo and his Scottish wife Janet, [Soga, 1931, p vi], with a strong bias towards Xhosa, predicts incorrectly: “It would appear as if, ere long, the so-called Zulu language (which I believe to be really the original Aba-Mbo dialect) will be obliged to justify its existence or, as it is with the Aba-Mbo and Ama-Lala dialects south of the Natal border, give place to the isiXosa.” The current politically ‘correct’ usages “isiXhosa”, “isiZulu” in English to describe the languages are no more linguistically correct than would be the use of the word “Deutsch” in English to describe the German language – they are the correct words in Xhosa and Zulu to describe these languages. Hypersensitive writers use them in English but they are not justified by current usage. English usage does, however, seem to embrace “Siswati” for the language of the Swazi people.
Branford, W., 1992, South African languages, in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, (T. McArthur, ed.), pp 955–956, Oxford University Press.
Soga, J. H., 1931, The Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs, Lovedale Press, Lovedale, Cape.


To my shame I am not a Xhosa linguist. My childhood in the Transkei gave me a fair idea of how to pronounce it, but learning to read and speak it is an item on a lengthy retirement to-do list. The above hints on pronunciation come from one who also struggles.

David Walker