AskDefine | Define Xhosa

Dictionary Definition

Xhosa n : a Bantu language closely related to Zulu

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  • Native
  • Anglicized

Proper noun

  1. a Bantu people from South Africa, most of whom live in the Eastern Cape
  2. the language of these people; related to Zulu


Xhosa language
Xhosa people

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Extensive Definition

For the Pakistani ethnic group, see Khosa.
The Xhosa (()) people are speakers of Bantu languages living in south-east South Africa, and in the last two centuries throughout the southern and central-southern parts of the country.
Xhosa-speaking peoples are divided into several subgroups with related but distinct heritages. The main subgroups are the Bhaca, Bomvana, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Xesibe, and Thembu The name "Xhosa" comes from that of a legendary leader called uXhosa. There is also a theory that the word xhosa derives from a word in some Khoi-khoi or San language meaning "fierce" or "angry", the amaXhosa being the fierce people. The Xhosa refer to themselves as the amaXhosa and to their language as isiXhosa.
Presently approximately 8 million Xhosa people are distributed across the country, and Xhosa is South Africa's second most common home language, after Zulu, to which Xhosa is closely related. The pre-1994 apartheid system of bantustans denied Xhosas South African citizenship and attempted to confine them to the nominally self-governing "homelands" of Transkei and Ciskei, now both a part of the Eastern Cape Province where most Xhosa remain. Many Xhosa live in Cape Town (iKapa in Xhosa), East London (iMonti), and Port Elizabeth (iBhayi).
As of 2003 the majority of Xhosa speakers, approximately 5.3 million, live in the Eastern Cape, followed by the Western Cape (approximately 1 million), Gauteng (671,045), the Free State (246,192), KwaZulu-Natal (219,826), North West (214,461), Mpumalanga (46,553), the Northern Cape (51,228), and Limpopo (14,225)


The Xhosa are part of the south African Nguni migration which slowly moved south from the region around the Great Lakes. Xhosa peoples were well established by the time of the Dutch arrival in the mid-1600s, and occupied much of eastern South Africa from the Fish River to land inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban
Xhosa society was historically viewed as an open society because of its readiness to learn from, trade and interact with other societies. They interacted with the Khoi and the San, foraging and nomadic herding peoples from whose languages many of the features of the modern Xhosa language, including click consonants, were borrowed.
The Xhosa and white settlers first encountered one another around Somerset East in the early 1700s. In the late 1700s Afrikaner trekboers migrating outwards from Cape Town came into conflict with Xhosa pastoralists around the Great Fish River region of the Eastern Cape. Following more than 20 years of intermittent conflict, from 1811 to 1812 the Xhosas were forced east by British colonial forces in the Third Frontier War.
In the years following, many Xhosa-speaking clans were pushed west by expansion of the Zulus, as the northern Nguni put pressure on the southern Nguni as part of the historical process known as the mfecane, or "scattering". Xhosa unity and ability to resist colonial expansion was further weakened by the famines and political divisions that followed the cattle-killing movement of 1856. Historians now view this movement as a millenialist response both directly to a lung disease spreading among Xhosa cattle at the time, and less directly to the stress to Xhosa society caused by the continuing loss of their territory and autonomy. At least one historian has also suggested that it can be seen as a rebellion against the upper classes of Xhosa society, which used cattle as a means of consolidating wealth and political power, and which had lost respect as they failed to hold back white expansion.
Some historians argue that this early absorption into the wage economy is the ultimate origin of the long history of trade union membership and political leadership among Xhosa people. That history manifests itself today in high degrees of Xhosa representation in the leadership of the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling political party.


Xhosa is an agglutinative tonal language of the Bantu family. While the Xhosas call their language "isiXhosa," the most common name in English is "Xhosa." Written Xhosa uses a Latin alphabet-based system. Xhosa is spoken by about 18% of the South African population, and has some mutual intelligibility with Zulu. Many Xhosa speakers, particularly those living in urban areas, also speak Zulu and/or Afrikaans and/or English.
Among its features, the Xhosa language famously has fifteen click sounds, originally borrowed from now extinct Khoisan languages of the region. Xhosa has three basic click consonants: a dental click, written with the letter "c"; an palatal click, written with the letter "q"; and a lateral click, written with the letter "x." There is also a simple inventory of five vowels (a, e, i, o, u).

Folklore and religion

Traditional Xhosa culture includes diviners known as amagqirha, who serve as herbalists, prophets, and healers for the community. This job is mostly taken by women, who spend five years in apprenticeship.
The Xhosas have a strong oral tradition with many stories of ancestral heroes; according to tradition, the leader from whose name the Xhosa people take their name was the first human on Earth. Other traditions have it that all Xhosas are descended from one ancestor named Tshawe
The key figure in the Xhosa oral tradition is the imbongi (plural: iimbongi) or praise singer. Iimbongi traditionally live close to the chief's "great place" (the cultural and political focus of his activity); they accompany the chief on important occasions - the imbongi Zolani Mkiva preceded Nelson Mandela at his Presidential inauguration in 1994. Iimbongis' poetry, called imibongo, praises the actions and adventures of chiefs and ancestors
The supreme being is called uThixo or uQamata. Ancestors act as intermediaries and play a part in the lives of the living; they are honoured in rituals. Dreams play an important role in divination and contact with ancestors. Traditional religious practice features rituals, initiations, and feasts. Modern rituals typically pertain to matters of illness and psychological well-being.
Christian missionaries established outposts among the Xhosa in the 1820s, and the first Bible translation was in the mid-1850s, partially done by Henry Hare Dugmore. Xhosa did not convert in great numbers until the 1900s, but now many are Christian, particularly within the African Initiated Churches such as the Zion Christian Church. Some denominations combine Christianity with traditional beliefs.

Rites of passage

One traditional ritual that is still regularly practiced is the manhood ritual, a secret rite that marks the transition from boyhood to adulthood (Ulwaluko). After ritual circumcision the initiates (abakwetha) live in isolation for up to several weeks, often in the mountains. During the process of healing they smear white clay on their bodies and observe numerous taboos.
In modern times the practice has caused controversy, with over 300 circumcision- and initiation-related deaths since 1994, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV via the practice of circumcising initiates with the same blade In March of 2007 a controversial mini-series dealing with Xhosa circumcision and initiation rites debuted on SABC. Titled Umthunzi Wentaba, the series was taken off the air after complaints by traditional leaders that the rites are secret and not to be revealed to non-initiates and women
Girls are also initiated into womanhood (Intonjane). They too are secluded, though for a shorter period. Female initiates are not circumcised
Other rites include the seclusion of mothers for ten days after giving birth, and the burial of the afterbirth and umbilical cord near the village. This is reflected in the traditional greeting Inkaba yakho iphi?, literally "Where is Your Navel?" The answer "tells someone where you live, what your clan affiliation is, and what your social status is [and] contains a wealth of cultural information. Most importantly, it determines where you belong"

Traditional diet

The Xhosa settled on mountain slopes of the Amatola and the Winterberg Mountains. Many streams drain into great rivers of this Xhosa territory including the Kei and Fish Rivers. Rich soils and plentiful rainfall make the river basins good for farming and grazing making cattle important and the basis of wealth.
Traditional foods include beef(Inyama yenkomo), mutton(Inyama yegusha), and goat meat, sorghum, maize and umphokoqo (dry maize porridge), "umngqusho" (made from dried, stamped corn and dried beans), milk (often fermented, called "amasi"), pumpkins(amathanga), beans(iimbotyi), and vegetables.The major mealtimes are breakfast and dinner.

Arts and crafts

Traditional crafts include beadwork, weaving, and pottery.
Traditional music features drums, rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments and especially group singing accompanied by hand clapping There are songs for various ritual occasions; one of the best-known Xhosa songs is a wedding song called Qongqongthwane, performed by Miriam Makeba as Click Song #1. Besides Makeba, several modern groups record and perform in Xhosa.
Missionaries introduced the Xhosa to Western choral singing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, part of the National anthem of South Africa is a Xhosa hymn written in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga. The first newspapers, novels, and plays in Xhosa appeared in the nineteenth century, and Xhosa poetry is also gaining renown.
Several films have been shot in the Xhosa language. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a modern remake of Bizet's 1875 opera Carmen. It is shot entirely in Xhosa, and combines music from the original opera with traditional African music. It takes place in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha.

Xhosas in modern society

Xhosa people currently make up approximately 18% of the South African population. While there have been many improvements in Xhosa people's lives since the abolition of apartheid, many of the effects of the policy remain.
There are high rates of poverty among Xhosas; Xhosa people make up some of the poorest of South Africans, but a minority of Xhosas are among the wealthiest
Under apartheid, adult literacy rates were as low as 30%, and in 1996 studies estimated the literacy level of first-language Xhosa speakers at approximately 50% There have been advances in since then, however. For example, most of the students at the University of Fort Hare are Xhosa.
Education in primary schools serving Xhosa-speaking communities is in the Xhosa language, but this is replaced by English after the early primary grades. Xhosa is still studied as a subject, however, and it is possible to major in Xhosa at the university level.
Many rural Xhosa now have the choice of migrating to cities in search of employment, whereas under apartheid it was only possible for Xhosa men to seek employment in the mining industry as so-called migrant labourers.

Xhosas in popular culture

The Xhosa, named after the Xhosa people, is the name of the freighter commanded by Kasidy Yates in the science fiction television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There is also an underground Canadian Rock band hailing from Cranbrook, British Columbia, by the name of Xhosa fronted by teenage heartthrob Craig McCue. In the Classic BattleTech sci-Fi universe, there is a planetary system named Xhosa, containing the inhabited planet Xhosa VII.

Notable Xhosa

  • Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa is a Xhosa-speaking member of the Thembu people.

See also


Note that the figure mentioned on this page is based upon the number of people speaking Xhosa as their home language, which may be greater or less than the total number of people claiming Xhosa descent. In addition, several million people in the Johannesburg-Soweto region speak Xhosa or Zulu as a second or third language. For a majority of these, the two languages become difficult to distinguish (unsurprising given the extreme closeness of their linguistic relationship).

External links

Xhosa in Afrikaans: Xhosas
Xhosa in Breton: Xhosa (pobl)
Xhosa in Bulgarian: Кхоса
Xhosa in Catalan: Xoses
Xhosa in Danish: Xhosa-folket
Xhosa in German: Xhosa (Volk)
Xhosa in Spanish: Xhosa
Xhosa in Esperanto: Kosoj
Xhosa in Galician: Xhosa
Xhosa in Italian: Xhosa
Xhosa in Latvian: Kosa (tauta)
Xhosa in Dutch: Xhosa (volk)
Xhosa in Norwegian: Xhosa
Xhosa in Polish: Xhosa
Xhosa in Portuguese: Xhosa
Xhosa in Russian: Коса (народ)
Xhosa in Serbo-Croatian: Xhosa
Xhosa in Finnish: Xhosat
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