News Articles

Saving southern Africa’s oldest language

Source: The South African, 20/07/2020

!Honkia. Gla kye !aba? (N|uu for Hello. How are you?)
The decline of N|uu dates all the way back to 1652, when the first
Europeans arrived by ship at the Cape of Good Hope. They spoke
only Dutch, and made little effort to assimilate with the
thriving, complex Khoikhoi and San communities who were already
living in the area. Instead, it was the locals ` who themselves
spoke a variety of tongues, including N|uu and Khoekhoegowab ` who
initiated communication.
Autshumato, the chief of the Goringhaicona, taught himself Dutch
and worked as a translator between the white people and the
indigenous community; his niece, Krotoa, became Jan van Riebeeck’s
personal translator. Between them they lay the foundations for a
new language, Afrikaans, based on Dutch but borrowing heavily from
indigenous words and grammar.

Over the centuries, this language ` along with English, another
import ` became a tool of oppression against South Africa’s
Khoikhoi and San communities. Indigenous languages were
marginalised, their speakers discriminated against, while
Afrikaans was enforced as the language of education, government
and work.
Esau herself has spoken previously about her upbringing on a
white-owned farm in the Northern Cape. Although N|uu was the
language she spoke at home with her parents, the farmer threatened
to shoot them if they were caught speaking it in public. Slowly,
the language disappeared from Esau’s everyday life. Afrikaans
Even when South Africa threw off white rule in 1994, little
changed. The new South Africa recognises 11 official languages,
but N|uu is not among them. Nor is Khoekhoegowab, which although
still endangered is much more widely spoken. This omission is
painful, said Esau.
Esau runs a small school from her home in Upington to teach N|uu
to younger generations. For her efforts in keeping the language
alive, she was awarded the Order of the Baobab by former president
Jacob Zuma in 2014. “We will lose knowledge if the language dies
out. That is why I teach N|uu to children in the area,” she said.
Kakapusa (Khoekhoegowab for Erasure)
N|uu is not dead yet, and the younger generation won’t let it die
without a fight. Claudia du Plessis is Esau’s granddaughter. She
is learning to speak the language. “I did not hear it [growing
up]. The whites told my grandmother not to speak N|uu because it
was an ‘ugly language.’
“My grandmother speaks it with me, and I’m reading books about it.
I can write it well, but the language is very difficult to speak.
But when you get it right, then you get it right.”
Along with Deidre Jantjies and Nadine Cloete, Du Plessis is making
a film about the N|uu-speaking community’s practices around
menstruation, showing how the taboos that exist today around a
woman’s body were never part of indigenous culture. This is an
example of the kind of knowledge that could die out along with a
Katrina Esau is a consultant on the film, to make sure the actors
get the words and pronunciation right. She is not a stickler,
encouraging them to “introduce our own flavour”, especially when
it comes to writing: “The writing was invented by the colonists.
Ouma [Katrina] said to write it like you understand it,” Du
Plessis said.
Also fighting to keep an indigenous language alive is Toroxa
Breda. When he was born, his mother called him Denver. She was
Khoikhoi, but gave him a name that would help him to fit in. He
grew up in Cape Town, speaking Afrikaans, and identified as
“coloured” ` a racial classification officially defined by the
apartheid government as a person of mixed European and African
ancestry. For decades, Khoikhoi and San people have been subsumed
into this classification ` and, all too often, erased by it.
“When you’ve grown up on the Cape Flats with this coloured
identity, I wonder what does this mean, who am I connected to?
What connects me to these people, to this land, to Africa? I only
speak the language of my former colonisers, [so] who am I?”
Breda began to answer that question for himself. But Khoikhoi
language and culture is so marginalised that it was not easy to
find the information he was looking for; sometimes, he could trace
his own roots only by searching for colonial slurs like
“hottentot” and “bushman”.
He began to teach himself Khoekhoegowab. It is a slow but
rewarding process. “It’s only when you hear the sounds of your
ancestors on your tongue that you feel a sense of belonging and
the sense of being an African,” he said. “Whilst my tongue was
rooted in Europe, which is Afrikaans and English, I could never
feel African.”
Nor could he connect this identity with his given name. “I
realised I needed to decolonise the name. There was no Denver in
our community. That is a coloniser name. I gave myself the name
Toroxa. That means fighting spirit.”
||Hui !Gaeb (Khoekhoegowab for Veiled in Clouds)
While N|uu may be at imminent risk of extinction, there are still
more than 200,000 speakers of Khoekhoegowab ` mostly in southern
Namibia, where it is often called Nama. Dr Levi Namaseb, a
linguistics professor, has been teaching Khoekhoegowab at the
University Namibia for 35 years.
It is, he says, a remarkable, unique language; the variety of
clicks used as consonants in Khoekhoegowab and its dialects are
not found in any other language, except when they have been
borrowed (the clicks in Xhosa, for example, come from
Khoekhoegowab). “It’s fascinating how far human nature can go in
order to create communication,” he said.
Namaseb believes that human dignity and language are inextricably
linked. “You lose your dignity when you speak the foreigner’s
language,” he said. He thinks that the government ` both in South
Africa and Namibia ` needs to play a much more active role in
protecting indigenous languages. “You need the hands of the
government in order to bring down our language or bring it up.”
South Africa’s government is paying some attention. Typically,
before the president delivers the annual state of the nation
address, he is ushered into the National Assembly by an imbongi `
a poet who sings the president’s praises, usually in Xhosa or
Zulu. In 2019, Cyril Ramaphosa broke with tradition by asking the
National Khoi and San Council to nominate a Khoekhoegowab-speaking
imbongi. The chair of the council nominated Bradley van Sitters.
“He said put on your skins, make us proud, make the nation proud,”
Van Sitters recalls. And so he did. On the night, ancient Khoikhoi
prayers echoed off the walls of the Parliament building in Cape
Town, and Van Sitter sreceived a standing ovation.
Van Sitters grew up in Cape Town, speaking Afrikaans. But as he
learnt more about his roots, he felt increasingly alienated by his
mother tongue. “When I go to the Cape Flats and ask the community,
‘What language do you speak?’, they say they speak Afrikaans. So I
ask them: Do you call yourself an Afrikaner? They say no, we are
not Afrikaners. There’s something interesting in that. We are
speaking the language, but there is a complete dissociation from
the identity attached to it.”
He resolved to find his own identity by learning Khoekhoegowab. He
traveled to Namibia, where the language was taught at university `
Dr Namaseb was his teacher ` and then focused his own research and
energies on keeping the language alive. In Cape Town, he set up
classes, and encouraged everyone he knew to call the city by its
Khoikhoi name: ||Hui !Gaeb, meaning ‘veiled in clouds’.
When he spoke to his mother about it, she said that she remembered
her grandmother speaking Khoikhoi, with other elders, under a
tree, but that the younger generations never learned. This was the
first he had heard about the Khoikhoi roots of his own family. By
rediscovering his language, Van Sitters was rediscovering his
“The genius of people, their secrets, their oral traditions, are
all intermingled into the nature of the language. There are so
many layers within the language itself. It’s intergenerational
truth that is being passed on, through the medium of language.
We’ve lost that connection, having gone through slavery,
oppression. Language was my means to make that connection again,”
he said.


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