isiXhosa: Language of the “Red Blanket People”

Written by Isabel Harmse

The Xhosa, also often called the “Red Blanket People”, are of Nguni stock, like the Zulu. The first group of early Nguni immigrants to migrate to South Africa consisted of the Xhosa, the Thembu and Pondo. Red and the orange of ochre were the traditional colours of the Xhosa, Tembu and Bomvana (“the red ones”) ( Well before the arrival of Dutch in the 1650s, the Xhosa had settled the south-eastern area of South Africa. They interacted with the foraging (food-gathering) and pastoral (nomadic herding) people who were in South Africa first, the Khoi and the San.

The Xhosa language is properly referred to as isiXhosa. It is a Bantu language closely related to Zulu, Swazi, and Ndebele. As with other South African languages, Xhosa is characterized by respectful forms of address for elders and in-laws. The language is also rich in idioms. To have “isandla esishushu” (a warm hand), for example, is to be generous.

Xhosa contains many words with click consonants that have been borrowed from Khoi or San words. The “X” in Xhosa represents a type of click made by the tongue on the side of the mouth. This consonant sounds something like the clicking sound English-speaking horseback riders make to encourage their horses. English speakers who have not mastered clicks often pronounce Xhosa as “Ko-Sa” (

Xhosa is an unusual, yet pretty-sounding, language. To many, it is difficult to learn because the consonants are uncommon and also densely populated. The sounds are relatively aggressive (as opposed to soothing and melodic). They comprise English sounds, 15 clicks, ejectives and an implosive. Learners most frequently battle with the 15 clicks, which are divided into three groups. Learning to speak the language can be very challenging, but also very rewarding.


The word “Xhosa” is from the Khoisan language and means “The angry men”.

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