A Preliminary Investigation into Select Khoekhoegowab Ethnonyms

Cite this article as: Leigh, S.M. (2023). A Preliminary Investigation into Select Khoekhoegowab Ethnonyms. Tasambo Journal of Language, Literature, and Culture, (2)1, 18-26. www.doi.org/10.36349/tjllc.2023.v02i01.003.


Leigh S. Millward

Independent Researcher


This article provides a preliminary investigation into the etymology of the Khoekhoegowab ethnonyms damara, nama, haiǁom, and ǂākhoe. It begins with a brief overview of the current nomenclature and literature in Khoekhoegowab studies, and includes relevant background information to provide context for the etymology. Despite the relative paucity of source materials, the article proposes that reliable etymologies of Khoekhoegowab ethnonyms can be achieved. Structural patterns are observable, even though only a limited number of examples were analyzed. Analysis of the etymology of ethnonyms can shed light on the historical background of a particular group, but further research into the proto-language is necessary to confirm etymologies with greater certainty.

Keywords: damara, nama, haiǁom, ǂākhoe khoekhoe, etymology

Notes on conventions used throughout the article

Clicks are described using standard orthography, namely:

/          dental

ǂ           palatal

ǁ           lateral click

!           alveolar

Long vowels are presented with a macron. Nasal vowels are expressed with a circumflex and tone is not described.


Khoekhoegowab is recognized as one of Namibia's national languages under the country's constitution and is the second most spoken language, with 11% of households using it as their main language at home (Namibia Statistics Agency, 2017 p. 95). As one of two living branches of the Khoe language family (Menán du Plessis, 2019), Khoekhoegowab has been referred to by various names throughout its history, including Nama, Nama/Damara, Namaqua, and the now-offensive term Hottentot (Tindall, 1857 p. 4-5; Treis, 1998 p. 469). In this article, we will provide a preliminary investigation into the etymology of select Khoekhoegowab ethnonyms, namely damaranamahaiǁom, and ǂākhoe, and offer insights into the historical background of these groups. Despite the limited availability of source materials, we aim to demonstrate that reliable etymologies of Khoekhoegowab ethnonyms can be achieved through structural analysis.

The Khoe language family comprises two subdivisions, namely Khoekhoe and Tshu-Khwe. Among these, the Khoekhoe subdivision forms a dialect continuum that includes several constituent dialects such as Nama, Damara, Haiǁom, and ǂĀkhoe. Khoekhoegowab, the language spoken by many Khoekhoe people, is a compound noun that consists of "Khoekhoen", which can be translated as "people's people" and "gowab", meaning "language" or "tongue" (Barnard, 1992 p. 7; Haacke & Eiseb, 2002 p. 43).

At present, "A Khoekhoegowab Dictionary" by Haacke and Eiseb (2002), remains the sole Khoekhoegowab dictionary for scholarly or personal use. The dictionary is both pioneering and invaluable to the researcher and to the preservation of a language which has been categorised in some sources as endangered, although others comment on the language's vitality (Brenzinger, 2007; Fredericks, 2016). There is also a glossary in Afrikaans by Haacke, Eiseb & Gericke (2010), based on the same work. For an overview of grammar and the language family in general, there is the useful "The Khoesan Languages" edited by Vossen (2013). Although dated now in many respects, "A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Namaqua-Hottentot Language" by Tindall (1857), still serves as a useful accompanying text. All of the above-mentioned resources serve as the basis for the etymologies proposed in this article, alongside the author's research with Khoekhoegowab informants.

In addition to being terms used to describe the dialects of Khoekhoegowab, the words Damara, Nama, Haiǁom, and ǂĀkhoe are also used as ethnonyms. Generally speaking, the Damara dialect of Khoekhoegowab is found north of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, while the Nama dialect is found to the south. Based on genetic and linguistic evidence, it is believed that the Damara people were originally Khoe speakers before their contact with the Nama tribes to their south (Haacke, 2021; Montinaro et al., 2017), which goes against a widespread fallacy that the Damara arrived into this particular region of south-west Africa as vassals of the Nama (Tindall, 1857 p. 5). The Haiǁom and ǂĀkhoe, whilst speaking a dialect of Khoekhoegowab, are culturally closer to the San peoples (Widlok, 1999). Both the ǂĀkhoe and Haiǁom groups reside in the territory north of the Damara, with the former located around Otyolo and the latter around Otavi. However, it is uncertain whether these groups originated as speakers of a variety of Khoe or a Kx'a language (Rapold & Widlok, 2008 p. 1). The Nama and Damara are also divided into clan groups.

Unlike the term San (Barnard, 1992 p. 8; Haacke, 2018 p. 135), an exonym with a reliable etymology coming from Khoekhoegowab (The verb '', to gather or collect, plus a plural post-clitic), other pertinent ethnonyms lack reliable etymologies. The goal of this paper is to present reliable etymologies for damaranamahaiǁom, and ǂākhoe, alongside demonstrating any possible alternative etymologies where appropriate.

2.1 Etymology - background considerations

The role of proto-Khoekhoe in enabling the reliable reconstruction of the etymologies presented in this paper cannot be overlooked. A respected linguist, George Starostin, maintains an excellent Khoekhoegowab etymology database online (Starostin, 2006) which has been consulted throughout the following etymological analysis. The database itself is based largely on the work of Haacke & Eiseb (2002) and Vossen (1997), with additional input where possible concerning the more sparsely attested siblings of Khoekhoegowab, namely !Ora and Griqua (Meinhof, 1930). However, it is important to bear in mind that the overwhelming amount of data concerning the proto-word forms of Khoekhoegowab comes almost entirely from Khoekhoegowab resources, such is the disparity between the literature available concerning proto-Khoekhoe sub-branches. As Starostin highlights himself in notes attached to his etymological database, proto-Khoekhoe forms are likely to parallel closely the attested Khoekhoegowab forms, at least as far as current research concerning the reconstruction of proto-Khoekhoe is concerned.

Furthermore, it is important to consider tonology when reconstructing the etymologies presented in this paper, as appropriate. In Khoekhoegowab, tone can serve both lexical and grammatical functions. Nevertheless, determining the precise extent of the role of tone is impeded by various factors. Firstly, early Khoekhoegowab sources either did not describe tone adequately, if at all (Tindall, 1857; Krönlein, 1889) or described differing paradigms concerning Khoekhoegowab tonology (Beach, 1938; Haacke, 1993; Hagman, 1977). The tone placed on a particular root can also vary depending on its function in a word or sentence. It has also been noted that tone forms one of the primary differences in the dialectal varieties of Khoekhoegowab (Namaseb, 2010, as cited in Fredericks, 2013 p. 30). Given the aforementioned considerations, it appears that tonal analysis may have limited value in current etymological reconstruction.

Throughout the production of this article, we consulted four local informants, all of whom had experience teaching Khoekhoegowab in some capacity, whether formally or informally. Additionally, one of the informants was a senior member of a clan from a Khoekhoegowab-speaking tribe. Two of the informants spoke the Nama dialect, while the other two spoke the Damara dialect.

2.2 Etymology - damara

In the literature, no information can be found concerning a proposed etymology of damara. Haacke (2018) states that Nama speakers used the exonym term dama about all black people. It is worth noting the addition of the post-clitic -ra to the root dama. It has been stated in the same paper (Haacke, 2018 p. 140), that it was likely to have been added in error by a European pioneer who mistook the inflected form damara (meaning either feminine or neuter dual for dama) as the root form.

This paper does not dispute the assumption that the post-clitic "-ra" has been added to the root dama. In Khoekhoegowab, nouns are composed of a root and various post-clitic markers that indicate person, gender, and number (PGN). For instance, consider the root "ǂAodama," which is the name of a Khoekhoegowab tribe and dialect. The following word-forms, employing PGN markers, can be identified:








'ǂAodama female'

'ǂAodama male'

'ǂAodaman people'

It is highly improbable that an individual inquiring about the name of a tribal group would only receive the root form. In all likelihood, some form of post-clitic marker would be utilized during the exchange, and individuals unfamiliar with the language may confuse this form as the noun root or stem. As mentioned previously, in the literature, dama plus either gender post-clitic (-s or -b) is defined as denoting a black person. This definition is true in a sense as the Nama tribe uses the word ǂNūkhoen to refer to the Damara tribe, and ǂNūkhoen is considered synonymous in use with damara. The etymology of ǂNūkhoen is straightforward to derive and means black people.


ǂNū-     khoe-    n

black-  person-            3N.PL

'black peoples'

However, it cannot be concluded that the etymology for the ethnonym damara, too, stems from the same concept, merely that damara and ǂNūkhoen are synonymous in use but with two differing etymologies.

During the author's research into Khoekhoegowab, a folk explanation regarding the meaning of the term damara was observed. According to this explanation, the Damara is named so because when the first foreigners visited their homelands, they found it challenging to locate them since the Damara were always on the move. As we will explore in the following section, this etymology is likely to be similar to the verifiable etymology of the ethnonym presented here:


dā-       ma-      ra

Step-around.DISTR-  3NF.DL

'Those who step around, move around here and there

In the literature, '' is described as meaning to step, to stand, to stand firm and can be used as in the following example:

Tā ǁnāba dā

'don't step there

It is important to note that the length of the vowel in  has not been preserved in damara. This is probably because the first users of the word damara failed to differentiate the vowel length. In early literature regarding Khoekhoegowab, the vowel lengths were also not recorded (Tindall, 1857). The second morpheme 'ma', can function as the verb 'to stand', or as a suffixed adverb meaning 'here or there', 'around' or 'about'. More precisely, the adverb -ma functions as a distributive suffix. There are several verb derivations in Khoekhoegowab which modify the meaning of the verb, including causative, repetitive, diminutive, distributive and durative forms (Hagman, 1977 p. 143-144).

An example can be seen in the difference between the following two verb forms:

!ae - to jump   

!aema - to jump around

It should be underlined, however, that the distributive verbal suffix has a different meaning to the verb. The distributive can be added to the verb as seen here:

 - to stand  

Māmā - to stand around, loiter, linger

Finally, '-ra', as mentioned, is likely to derive from a misunderstood post-clitic describing dual, feminine or neuter, third person.

2.3 Etymology - nama

A proposed etymology for nama cannot be found in the literature. At first glance, the structure of nama seems comparable to the root observed in damara. However, applying this paradigm results in an etymology that doesn't appear appropriate.


na -ma


'tear around'

The term nama in Khoekhoegowab has two different pronunciations with slightly different meanings. When the first syllable is pronounced with a high tone, it refers to the Nama ethnic group. On the other hand, when the first syllable is pronounced with a low tone, the term nama in contemporary Khoekhoegowab refers to speakers of English or Afrikaans. Traditionally, the word also described all foreign language speakers or, in fact, anyone who spoke 'corrupted' Khoekhoegowab (Haacke & Eiseb, 2002 p. 94). This probably encompassed speakers of more distant Khoekhoegowab dialects. It is possible, therefore, that nama was a loanword and may have originally been used as an exonym by another group to describe the Khoekhoe speakers who later adopted it as their own autonym.



'foreign speaker'

Interestingly, there seems to be some demonstration of metathesis with nama, as many sources list an archaic form of the word mana - listed with the same meaning (Haacke & Eiseb, 2002 p. 80; Krönlein, 1889 p. 230; Starostin, 2007a). It is possible to derive an etymology for nama, which in fact, resembles that of dama, sharing the common distributive element.



stand?- 3NP

'they who stand'?

However, this proposition does seem unlikely despite providing an interesting contrast to the etymology of damara. While metathesis is not unheard of in Khoekhoe etymologies (Starostin, 2007b), one would rather assume tribal ethnonyms have a large degree of diachronic stability. Another issue is that in the literature, ma functions as a verb and in the gloss presented above, it must function as a noun to take the third person neuter plural post-clitic. It is indeed possible that the differentiation between nama and mana was based on different foreign languages spoken by non-Khoekhoe groups encountered by Khoekhoe speakers. Over time, the distinction between the two may have been lost, with nama becoming the predominant term for both the people and their language. However, without direct evidence, it is difficult to determine with certainty the exact reason for the differentiation and subsequent convergence of these terms.

It is also unlikely that nama is related to the root nami, meaning 'to temporarily appear'. The root nami is the most likely source for the etymology for namib, a Khoekhoegowab word denoting the desert and, ultimately, the country of Namibia itself. The root probably relates to the heavy desert fog which engulfs the region.


nami-  b

appear temporarily-3M.SG

'the temporarily appearing place'

2.4 Etymology - haiǁom

There is a documented etymology for haiǁom (Barnard, 1992 p. 214), which has also been repeated to the author by local informants. However, to rule out any false folk etymologies, the etymology shall be investigated further. The etymology is said to be a compound of two nouns hai meaning 'tree' or 'bush', and ǁom meaning 'sleep'.


Hai-        ǁom


'tree sleeper'

The noun hai is glossed in the literature as having three different meanings depending on which gender suffix is added. Compound words in Khoekhoegowab usually consist of roots without any PNG markers. The root hai probably means some form of woody growth or crown. It also possesses a glottal stop, which is present in speech but not in orthography.

     hai-                  b

hai-                  i

hai-                        s

tall wooden growth-3M.SG

'stick or tall thin tree'

wooden growth-3N.SG

'wood material'

wide wooden growth-3F.SG

'wide crown tree or bush'

Superficially, therefore, the etymology of haiǁom is straightforward to derive; however, there is one caveat to consider. Starostin reports that the proto-Khoekhoe form of ǁom contained a higher back vowel, reconstructed as ǁum. Ethnonyms (alongside toponyms) are reported to be relatively diachronically stable (Dalby, 1984) and the preservation of the original vowel quality in the ethnonym is to be anticipated. Sound changes are to be expected over time and the back vowel in the ethnonym likely evolved parallel to that of the verb and derivative forms. The reconstruction of the higher back vowel was due to the input of source material from!Ora, a language related closely to Khoekhoegowab and part of the Khoekhoe subdivision of Khoe, in which the proto-Khoekhoe vowel quality is preserved. Vossen (1997 p. 484), however, posits that the proto-Khoekhoe word-form did not have the reconstructed high back vowel 'u' indicating that!Ora was the source of innovation in the form. This discrepancy in the reconstruction of proto-forms is a result of the limited source material (particularly in a temporal aspect) available for all languages in the Khoe language family combined with the fact that concerted efforts for its reconstruction are in their infancy.

There is some evidence that the ethnonym Haiǁom is relatively new, with reports stating that the Haiǁom may originally have been part of the !kung tribe, a San people who speak a Kx'a language (Barnard, 1992 p. 214). Although this is denied by the Haiǁom themselves. Whether this is true or not requires further research, but it may explain the unexpected ǁom form.

2.5 Etymology - ǂākhoe

The ethnonym here is again composed of two morphemes, this time in a verb plus noun configuration. The first morpheme ǂā can function as a verb or noun, depending on its tone characteristic. Verbally, there are two derivations according to tone: one meaning 'to crack', 'cleave', or 'split', and the second meaning 'slaughter ritually'. In terms of noun derivatives, a similar issue as in previous etymologies in the paper can be encountered in that the meaning of the noun differs depending on the tone. A high tone followed by a low tone may mean 'saliva' if masculine, or 'fat' if feminine. A reverse tone pattern will derive a noun meaning 'reed' or 'arrow shaft'. As with the etymology of nama, without further research into tonal variances in the pronunciation of Khoekhoegowab both geographically and temporarily, it will be difficult to say with absolute certainty which meaning is found in the etymology. However, the literature states that the current tone characteristic of the morpheme ǂā matches that of the tone characteristic to denote the verb meaning ‘ritual slaughter’. This potentially indicates the most reliable interpretation of the etymology. Still, because the tone is variable dialectically in Khoekhoegowab and as some tone changes may have occurred over time, further investigation will be needed to determine the characteristic present at the point the ethnonym was conceived.

The second morpheme khoe is straightforward to derive the meaning of and is well known to those interested in Khoekhoegowab.


ǂĀ-       khoe

ritual slaughter-person

'person of ritual slaughter'

3. Discussion

Ethnonyms continue to play a significant role in the identities of Khoekhoegowab speakers. On March 6th, 2023, a representative of the!Ainîn tribe announced on a popular social media platform that the clan's name would henceforth be known as !Ainîndaman. According to customary law, the name change had been approved by a simple majority at a people's assembly several years prior, with a waiting period subsequently enabled to allow appeals against the name change to be considered (!Ainîdaman Traditional Community, 2023). This social media post proved to be particularly useful because it also described the etymology of the new ethnonym, namely that it is based on the toponym !Aib (meaning flatland).


!ai-        nîn    

!ai- nî- da- ma- n

flatland- 3P.PL           



'damas of the flatlands'


The previous ethnonym did not include the lexeme daman, which was derived from the word-form dama discussed earlier. The addition of this lexeme in the new ethnonym may indicate the clan's desire to reaffirm their affiliation with the larger Damara tribe. As demonstrated in this paper and through other examples, ethnonyms and their meanings can provide valuable insights into a tribe's customs, behaviors, and geographical location. This is particularly significant for Khoekhoegowab because written resources on the language and its speakers only began to emerge in the mid-19th century (Hahn, 1870; Wallman, 1857). The lack of documents dating back further means there are deficits in our knowledge of Khoe early history and the evolution of its language and people. Ethnonyms and their etymologies can provide useful insight into the past, which is beyond the reach of other forms of historical research. Genetic studies have, and will undoubtedly continue to answer some of the questions concerning southern Africa - particularly in terms of migratory routes (Montinaro et al., 2017) and genetic admixture. However, linguistics will play an important role too and a more reliable understanding of ethnonyms and toponyms will help unify the genetic, archaeological and linguistic record.

Two of the ethnonyms, Damara and Haiǁom, had local folk etymologies attached to them. A folk etymology, according to the definition (Merriam-Webster, n.d.), should describe a false relationship between the origin of the word and its present-day interpretation. However, the explanations the author observed via local Khoekhoegowab informants seem to agree with the etymological analysis in the paper. There were no unexpected sound changes or derivational affixes alongside the fact that there was little need to 'stretch' the proposed definition of the word found in the dictionary or reconstructed proto-forms.

Based on the analysis presented in the paper, it is possible to outline a rough paradigm for ethnonyms in Khoekhoegowab. All of the ethnonyms analyzed so far consist of compounded lexical elements (root + root or root + derivational suffix). The structure of ethnonyms preserves a consonant-verb (CV) repetition pattern. This repetition pattern may explain why root forms are observed in ethnonyms instead of stems compounded together, as a consonant present in a derivational suffix would make it difficult to compound a subsequent root. It can also be assumed that any derivational forms that are permissible in Khoekhoegowab ethnonyms adhere to the CV pattern, as seen with the distributive suffix -ma in damara. Word-forms in Khoekhoegowab generally adhere to three patterns: CVCV, CVV, and CVN (Hagman, 1977 p. 23-26; Vossen, 2013 p. 58).

Because of the small number of ethnonyms analysed in this paper, it can be expected further paradigms will be defined. However, knowledge concerning the general structure of ethnonyms in Khoekhoegowab will be of use in future etymological research as etymologies fitting to known paradigms are more likely to be reliable.

There are several limitations to this study that need to be addressed. Firstly, Khoekhoegowab is still relatively understudied compared to other languages. As mentioned in the introduction, there is only one modern dictionary and a few relatively modern grammars available, and scholars have only recently made attempts to establish reliable proto-word forms in the Khoekhoegowab language family. Additionally, the author's access to informants was limited, with only four informants available, none of whom spoke ǂĀkhoe or Haiǁom. This limitation may have impacted the accuracy and completeness of the data collected.

Furthermore, the author's analysis of the etymologies was conducted after being made aware of the possible folk etymologies behind them, which could have introduced bias into the interpretation of the ethnonyms. It is essential to consider this potential bias when interpreting the findings of this study. Future research should address these limitations by increasing the number of informants and studying more Khoekhoegowab dialects to provide a more comprehensive analysis of Khoekhoegowab ethnonyms.

Further study is needed in all areas of Khoekhoegowab language. An interesting direction for future research would be to compile a list of all known Khoekhoegowab-speaking clans and to perform a similar study on their current and past ethnonyms. This may reveal finer detail about the history and migration paths of these people.


In conclusion, this paper explored the etymologies of several ethnonyms used by the Khoekhoegowab-speaking tribes in Namibia. The analysis revealed that these ethnonyms contain compounded lexical elements with a consonant-verb repetition pattern. The autonym damara was found to mean 'to step around/about' and was likely coined as an exonym by those unfamiliar with Khoekhoegowab word construction. The ethnonym haiǁom means 'tree or bush sleepers' while ǂĀkhoe means 'a person of ritual slaughter'. The paper also highlighted the limitations of the study, including the limited number of informants and the relatively understudied nature of the Khoekhoegowab language. The insights gained from this study can help provide a better understanding of the Khoekhoegowab language and the people who speak it. Further research into the etymologies of ethnonyms in Khoekhoegowab and other languages could contribute to a deeper understanding of the cultures and histories of those who use these names to identify themselves.


The author would like to express their gratitude to the informants and Khoekhoegowab teachers and friends who provided invaluable insights for this study.


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