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EXTREME NAMIBIA - Some of the World's Most COMPLEX Languages


In this weekly EXTREME NAMIBIA blog series we explore some of our country's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

Are you one of those people who like to pick up a bit of the local lingo when you travel? Do you pack a phrasebook and attempt to order your lunch in the native language? Do you like to greet people on the street? Well, in Namibia that might be a little harder than you think...

Namibia's San, Damara and Nama people speak what are recognised as some of the world's most ancient and complicated languages. Even the linguistically blessed are likely to struggle getting their mouths around these words - as not only are they unrelated to other languages outside southern Africa - they involve speaking with clicks! Here's a mini guide to help you out with some of the world's most complex phonetics.

A Quick Guide to Namibia's Click Languages

Namibia's Damara and Nama people speak Khoekhoe, while the San, also known as the Bushmen, speak various related languages, depending on the tribe. Khoekhoe has four click sounds, written |, ǂ, ! and ||, but even speakers of this language are baffled by the San - who use at least seven clicks! Even worse, getting your clicks mixed up spells trouble, as the same word with a different click has a completely different meaning.

Khoekhoe language lesson

For example:

  • hara = swallow

  • !hara = check out

  • |hara = dangle

  • ǂhara = repulse

Yikes! Fortunately for visitors, English is Namibia's official language so you won't have to master the world's most complex tongue! However, if you are up for a bit of a challenge, we've found some tutorials that might help you, or at least give you a bit of an insight into what Namibia sounds like:

Learn how to write and pronounce the Khoekhoe clicks:

Count to ten in Khoekhoe:

Listen to the San:

Facts about click languages and their speakers:

  • In Namibia, there are around 100,000 Damara, 60,000 Nama and 27,000 San, so you are sure to hear their languages on your travels!

  • It was suggested that the clicks developed as a way for hunters to communicate across the savannah - when spoken quietly the clicks sound less like speech and more like a broken branch, whih is less likely to disturb prey.


San hunters at a living museum

  • The languages are considered so complex because the clicking sounds are made at the same time as the consonant sounds, so you have to train your mouth to do two things at once!

  • Khoekhoe is a national language in Namibia. Many schools use it, and some universities teach in Khoekhoe.

Practical Information:

  • Meet the Damara and San at a Living Culture Museum, to learn more about their language as well as their culture and traditions.

  • Take a township tour in Mondesa, Swakopmund, to meet Damara and Nama residents and have an introduction to Khoekhoe in their home.

  • Stay at a joint venture lodge in Damaraland, such as Damaraland Camp. The Damara community members who manage the lodges have formed their own choirs - composed of managers, chefs and waiting staff! They entertain guests upon arrival and at mealtimes with the most wonderful songs - sung with clicks, of course.

8 Things Namibia Taught Me


Namibia is a land of adventure and spectacle. Amazing natural parks, free-roaming wildlife, and iconic open spaces can inspire anyone. WWF Travel's Director Elissa Leibowitz Poma recently joined WWF's Chris Weaver in Namibia and came back with a few lessons that she originally posted on the WWF Travel Blog:

1. Black rhinos have a more sensitive disposition than white rhinos. Among several reasons why, according to Jeff Muntifering of the Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia, is the fear of being hunted. White and black rhinos alike have been poached for decades, but black rhinos, which are more solitary than white rhinos, appear to have passed along knowledge of that practice in their genetic code as a survival mechanism.

2. The San click languages spoken by some bushmen is quite difficult to pronounce. A language originating with the hunter-gatherers of southern Africa as they traversed their ancestral lands, the languages and various dialects are still spoken by about 100,000 people in Namibia and Botswana (and small groups in Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe). The one I tried learning consists of four click styles, depending on the placement of your tongue in your mouth. The clicks themselves weren’t so hard to form, but connecting them to words twisted my tongue in knots! (See a pronunciation guide to practice.)

3. Giraffes are the best models in Namibia. You could be driving along a road, nothing around you but sand and rocks, and then all of a sudden a giraffe neck and head pops out from behind a grove of trees. The giraffe would hold your gaze, nibbling on some leaves but intently watching you from beneath impossibly long eyelashes. (They’re that long for a purpose, by the way: To keep insects, debris and sunlight out of their eyes.)

4. There must be a better word to describe a springbok’s leap than “pronk.”Springboks and other gazelles exhibit this behavior when they’re being pursued by prey or otherwise feel a need to get out quickly. It’s an elegant, ballet-like move that allows the springbok to gain extra distance, and surely the motion deserves a more elegant, ballet-like word.

5. You must succumb to the dust. Namibia is a desert. It’s hot, it’s dry - Arizona seems like a rain forest in comparison. So you must accept the fact that the dust will coat every inch of you - covering every centimeter of your skin and clothes, coating each strand of hair, lining the inside of your nose. Instead of resisting it, I  embraced it. It made me feel like a part of the magnificent, stark landscape.

6. It’s hard to eat game after watching it all day. Game meat is a way of life in Africa, and ostrich, zebra, kudu and other mammals frequently show up on menus. I recognize the realities of the world, and I’m not a vegetarian in “real life.” But for me, there was something quite difficult about watching dapper oryx walk across the valleys all afternoon, then mustering any desire to eat a steak of it for dinner. I was surprised by my reaction, actually. I stuck with pasta and veggies.

Ochre body paint made by Himba

7. The adornments that Himba women wear all have practical purposes.The Himba are a semi-nomadic group in the Kunene region of northern Namibia who have maintained a traditional tribal lifestyle. The women we met in a small village were coated head to toe in otijze, a paste made of butter, ash and the natural pigment ochre. The coating gives them a rust-colored, shiny glaze, which not only beautifies them in the Himba way (the rich red color symbolizes blood and life), but also provides sun protection. Likewise, women wear beaded anklets, to prevent snake bites.

8. I have a new appreciation for asphalt. After spending hours each day in a vehicle bumping along dry riverbeds, rock-strewn trails and paths formed by elephants, I hereby declare I will never complain again about potholes in Washington, D.C.

To learn more about how you can have an experience like Elissa's in Namibia's Conservancies, click here

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