16,000 ± 2,000 (2011)
Namibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa
Variously:knw – Ekoka !Kungvaj – Sekelaktz – Juǀʼhoansi
!Kung /ˈkʊŋ/ (!Xuun), also known as Ju, is a dialect continuum (language complex) spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola by the ǃKung people. Together with the ǂHoan language, it forms the proposed Kx'a language family. !Kung constituted one of the branches of the putative Khoisan language family, and was called Northern Khoisan in that scenario, but the unity of Khoisan has never been demonstrated and is suspected to be spurious. Nonetheless, the term "Khoisan" has been retained as an umbrella term for click languages in general.
!Kung is famous for having a large number of clicks, such as the ǃ in its name, and has some of the most complex inventories of both consonants and vowels in the world. It also has tone. For a description, see Juǀʼhoansi. To pronounce !Xuun (pronounced [!͡χũː˦˥] in Western !Kung/!Xuun) one makes a click sound before the x sound (which is like a Scottish or German ch), followed by a long nasal u vowel with a high rising tone.
If the !Kung languages are counted together, they would make the third-most-populous click language after Khoekhoe and Sandawe. The most populous !Kung language, Juǀʼhoan, is perhaps tied for third place with Naro.
Estimates vary, but there are perhaps 15,000 speakers, though counting is difficult because speakers are scattered on farms, interspersed with speakers of other languages. Brenzinger (2011) counts 9,000 in Namibia, 2,000 in Botswana, 3,700 in South Africa, and 1,000 in Angola. Botswana hosts a minority of Juǀʼhoan speakers. Most of these figures are preliminary estimates, especially in Angola, where no demographic or linguistic surveys have been conducted since the civil war.
Until the mid–late twentieth century, the ǃʼOǃKung and Maligo dialects were widespread in southern and central Angola. However, most !Kung fled the Angolan Civil War to Namibia (primarily to the Caprivi Strip), where they were recruited into the South African Defence Force special forces against the Angolan Army and SWAPO. At the end of the Border War, more than one thousand fighters and their families were relocated to Schmidtsdrift in South Africa amid uncertainty over their future in Namibia. After more than a decade living in precarious conditions, the post-Apartheid government bought and donated land for a permanent settlement at Platfontein, near Schmidtsdrift.
The better-known !Kung dialects are Tsumkwe Juǀʼhoan, Ekoka !Kung, ǃʼOǃKung, and ǂKxʼauǁʼein. Scholars distinguish between eleven and fifteen dialects, which may not be mutually intelligible when not adjacent, but there are no clear-cut distinctions between them at our present state of knowledge.
Sands et al. classify !Kung varieties into four clusters, with the first two being quite close:
ǂKxʼauǁʼein was too poorly attested to classify, but has since been determined to be Southeastern.
Heine & Honken (2010) classify 11 varieties into three branches:
The ancestral language, Proto-Juu or Proto-!Xuun, had five places of click articulation: Dental, alveolar, palatal, alveolar lateral, and retroflex (*ǃ˞ or *‼). The retroflex clicks have dropped out of Southeastern dialects such as Juǀʼhoan, but remain in Central !Kung. In ǀʼAkhwe (Ekoka), the palatal click has become a fricated alveolar.