Giving breath to a dying history

26 February 2015 | Story by Newsroom
The N||ng alphabet.
The N||ng alphabet.

Three elderly sisters survive who speak the N|uu language–the only people on earth who still do. In the heat of Upington, one of them, lacking the resources to do so elsewhere, is teaching local children to speak it outside her house. With the help of a local academic team, they've even developed an orthography, to ensure the history and heritage don't vanish.

The director of the Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) drives a Rapid Response car. It doesn't have an actual siren, but it's marked much like an emergency vehicle: yellow stripes, the works–ready at a moment's notice to go out and help to resuscitate a dying language. One might wonder whether it's illegal to do this, but it's not – it's merely an elegant parody on wheels; an attractive design, actually, with the background subtly marked with maps of the country's endangered language profile.

This week, the Rapid Response vehicle is in Upington. It's visiting the site of some long-term work, the N||ng Language Project, working with partners of ǂKhomani San heritage.

Ouma Geelmeid, one of the last five speakers of N||ng, with her great grandchild Cleyve and granddaughter Claudia in Dr Matthias Brenzinger's custom-decorated car.

There are just five surviving speakers of N||ng left in the world.

|'Au, the Eastern variety of N||ng, is spoken by Hannie Koerant and Fytjie Sanna Rooi in Olifantshoek.

The Western variety of N||ng, better known as N|uu, is spoken by three sisters, named Hanna Koper, Griet Seekoei and Katrina Esau. None of them use N||ng on a daily basis anymore; they communicate in Afrikaans, their mother tongue.

Many of the languages known in the linguistics field as non-Bantu click languages have been dying a slow death, over a period of centuries. For that matter, numerous languages of all descriptions throughout Africa are endangered: some 2 000 languages on the continent are spoken only by small communities, and are not being passed down to younger generations.

Here in Upington, Katrina Esau–known locally as 'Ouma Geelmeid'–has worked tirelessly to preserve the N|uu language, ensuring that there will still be some speakers surviving when she has passed on. She received the Order of the Baobab in Silver for her work in heritage preservation, on 27 April 2014.

Esau herself never learnt to read. But for the past nine years, she and her granddaughter, Claudia du Plessis, have been teaching N|uu to children in their community. Claudia and another learner, Mary-Ann Prins, who can both read, decipher the N|uu texts with Esau's help. Between 30 and 40 children from the neighbourhood acquire N|uu phrases and songs in the classes, which take place three times a week.

A N|ng orthography workshop.

Here's something interesting: it's not just the question of the language itself dying out. It's an issue of lifestyles changing, and of the applicability of words. How do you invent new words in a language that didn't have words for the new things you use? What is an MP3 player in N|uu? A power bank? (There's a lot of borrowing of terms, certainly.) And what happens to the words for things no longer used?

Bonny Sands from Northern Arizona University and Amanda Miller and Johanna Brugman from Cornell University note that some words are probably forever lost. "The N|uu speakers who hadn't grown up in the bush had difficulty remembering some plant and animal terms, until prompted by those who had grown up foraging. For instance, the only speaker who could remember the term for 'ostrich chick' initially (/!Χ'o ɑ/), was male and had hunted in his youth. No speaker recognised the term for 'arrow' cited by Doke (1936); they used the term /|au/, which Doke translated as 'bow', to mean 'bow and arrow'. It's also possible that there's been a significant loss of plant-related vocabulary in N|uu. We found only 44 named plants out of 150 species and subspecies used traditionally."

The issue of preserving the language, practically speaking, is an interesting one. How does one ensure the language is preserved? Especially when it is handed down orally, but nobody actually speaks it on a daily basis? The team at the Language Project took a novel route, developing a brand-new orthography for N|uu which is now being taught to the learners.

"Based on existing documentation, we worked closely with Ouma Geelmeid to identify the distinctive sounds of this language. The practical orthography consists of 112 speech sounds, of which 45 are clicks. Ouma Geelmeid, assisted by her granddaughter Claudia, is using the alphabet charts and teaching materials developed in the CALDi project," says Dr Sheena Shah, a postdoctoral fellow and director of the Language Project.

"Ouma Geelmeid teaches the language in a fun and interactive way, and has developed many songs and games to teach the children the N|uu language. The children enjoy seeing themselves featured in the educational materials produced in the CALDi project. They sing the N|uu songs and play the games even outside class," she says.

For many of the children, this is the only education they receive. Many are not enrolled at government schools. "Obviously this is an undesirable situation, and efforts should be made to have all children attending schools," says Shah. But for the children, who are otherwise receiving little stimulation, it is a start. "With Afrikaans as their mother tongue, English is gaining importance in their daily lives. Learning N|uu as their heritage language will help them to relate to their ancestral past, and to the community at present."

N|uu school

This multilingualism, believes CALDi director Dr Matthias Brenzinger, will stand the learners in good stead; and ultimately, aid their cognitive development. "Speakers of small languages are and always were multilingual," he says. "Luckily, the European Nation State ideology of 'one people, one country, one language' never worked out for multilingual and multicultural African states. And this is the reason that one third of the world's languages are spoken on the African continent."

Multilingualism has multiple benefits into adulthood, he adds. "In a global world, grounding in local cultures becomes increasingly important, especially for marginalised communities. Language plays a significant role in that. Another aspect is that of mental health; research shows that multilingualism lowers the risk of Alzheimer's," says Brenzinger.

Nonetheless, despite the success of the programme, the perks of multilingualism, and the enthusiasm with which the children being taught are embracing it, the programme does face its share of problems. Esau's Order of the Baobab is all very well, but practical support is needed from local government. "The N|uu language activists have been struggling for the last two years with the municipality for the allocation of a plot where they can build a community centre and a school building," says Shah. "The existing wooden school building was seriously damaged by a fire; and for that reason, teaching takes place outside, at Ouma Geelmeid's home."

For Shah and the N|uu language activists, however, giving up is not an option. ǂKhomani activists are working hard throughout the country to ensure their cultural heritage is preserved after generations of prejudice and persecution, and this project is no exception. "Even though the language will not survive as a fully-fledged medium of communication, it constitutes an important asset of the ǂKhomani ethnic identity," says Shah. "The language helps people to regain self-esteem, after centuries of being discriminated against and looked down upon as Bushmen.

"The language documentation, in addition, contributes to the academic discourse on the linguistic past of Southern Africa. The archived language documents on N|uu, such as the one in the Westphal holdings of UCT, can be discussed and analysed with the help of speakers."

Will the language be used, though? That's the key question. It's no good only to keep artefacts as academic resources, and to document the records of speakers' stories. It is crucial to return historical items to their sources–to communities and descendants–in consumable, accessible form wherever possible, Brenzinger believes. "Linguists can't save languages," he says. "It's only possible through the speakers. If it's not actually used, it's just archiving."

In South Africa in particular, he points out, there is a problem of policy versus practice. "The language policy is perfect," he says. "We have 11 official languages. Where else will you get that? But the implementation is not really taking place, because there's not enough local expertise. That's why it is very important to have African linguists trained in Africa.

"I am hoping to inspire students to study African languages. There is still this idea that English is better. There is very little respect for African languages, even among native speakers.

"Language in Africa is of outstanding importance, as there are so few written records," adds Brenzinger. "Oral traditions conveyed and preserved in African languages are often the only key to understanding the past. Languages spoken today allow for reconstructing migrations and other historical events. If we lose these languages, we lose an important source for understanding our history.

"Diversity is not a threat–it is a resource."

Story by Marelise van der Merwe. This story originally appeared in the Daily Maverick.

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