UCT researcher is in the vanguard of preserving threatened languages
Children are no longer learning to speak many of Africa's 2,000 or so languages in small, remote communities
Most of the about 2,000 languages in Africa are spoken in small, remote communities. “This extraordinary language diversity is one of Africa’s unique intellectual treasures,” says Matthias Brenzinger, director of the Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) at the University of Cape Town.
These communities are the least affected by global concepts. Many of them retain their own worldviews and approaches to life, reflected in their languages.
But in many cases, these languages are no longer acquired by their children and are therefore destined to vanish.
Concerned about the risk of language extinction, Brenzinger’s research over 40 years has focused on the documentation and revitalisation of endangered or near-extinct languages in Africa. He has climbed mountains and crossed deserts to spend time with remote communities to understand their daily lives, languages and thoughts better.
In the early 1980s, he travelled to the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania to learn more about Ma’a, a language spoken by a few remaining Mbugu elders in this region. In 1990, he visited the Mukogodo people in Kenya, and recorded, again with a few elders, what was left of their ancestral language, Yaaku.
Here, Brenzinger learned first-hand how languages develop in response to the natural world that sustains these communities, including an extraordinary knowledge of plants and their uses — for medicine, livestock, rituals and honey production. Honey and bees are precious commodities to the Mukogodo and extremely important in their daily lives and conceptualisation of the world.
Brenzinger accompanied the Mukogodo when they tended to the bees or followed the honeyguides, birds that lead people and honey badgers to wild bee nests.
“To be able to document highly specialised vocabularies on traditional activities, such as honey hunting, you have to participate and immerse yourself in the people’s daily activities in order to understand the meanings and concepts that derive from their experiences,” he explains.
Recognising the importance of teaching endangered languages to the younger generation in remote language communities, and to grow the scholarship of African languages by Africans in Africa, Brenzinger, through CALDi, secured a grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, which supports programmes and scholarship, with an emphasis on black SA scholars in the arts and humanities at several SA universities.
This has substantially boosted CALDi’s work over the past five years, which includes the development of the orthographies for three previously oral-only languages of former hunter-gatherer communities, namely the Khwe, Ts'ixa and N|uu.
Khwe is still used by a few thousand people in Namibia, Botswana and SA; Ts’ixa is spoken by fewer than 200 people in Botswana; and N|uu is a language at risk of extinction, with only four elderly speakers remaining. The three sisters and their brother — Hanna Kaoper, Griet Seekoei, Katrina Esau and Simon Sauls — live in Upington, Northern Cape.
“These last speakers of N|uu are exceptional resources in at least two respects: they still speak a language of outstanding importance for linguistics, but they are also survivors of a widely neglected past, namely the genocide of hunter gatherers in Southern Africa,” says Brenzinger.
Katrina Esau, also known as “Ouma Geelmeid” and more recently as Queen Katrina, turned 85 in February 2018 and is the most active among the remaining N|uu speakers.
“There are people who don’t know where I got this language,” says Queen Katrina. “Today I want to say that I did not learn this language. It was not handed to me, but I sucked it out of my mother’s breast. I buried it at the back of my head, I buried it because of white people, but it stayed at the back of my mind.”
Since the early 2000s Queen Katrina and her granddaughter, Claudia du Plessis, have been teaching N|uu as a team. In 2016, another community member, David van Wyk, became involved in the teaching of the language, and through his initiative, the N|uu Language Committee was established in December 2017. The N|uu classes are usually attended by 20-40 children of the ǂKhomani community and take place three times a week.
CALDi has supported their teaching efforts. One of the projects, directed by Sheena Shah, a Mellon postgraduate fellow at CALDi, focused on the production in 2016 of a 160-page trilingual N|uu-Afrikaans-English reader in collaboration with ǂKhomani community members. It provides N|uu phrases and sentences in 12 thematic areas, as well as games, prayers and songs taught in the N|uu classes. Here are some examples:
- ǁHûi ǂoo ke ǀx’ôa: The old man hunts.
- Na ǁ’ûi ǁ’ana ǀqhôqoa: I danced yesterday.
- Kinke si ǃhaeka sîisen: They will work hard tomorrow.
- A ka ǃu ke ǀxaquka: Your shoes are beautiful.
- ǃQhobasi bloemsi ke ku ǂama: The hoodia flowers are brown.
- ǂOro ke gǃuni: The moon is round.
- ǃ’Âu ke ku ǀx’aba: The sand is red.
CALDi’s efforts also address another important issue: the quest for the recognition and intellectualisation of all African languages. Brenzinger explains: “African languages play a central role in the discourse on decolonisation. The study of African languages is still dominated by linguists from outside the continent and this can only be changed through the training of African linguists. This is at the core of CALDi’s activities.”
He says their research also has a health and wellbeing aspect. Research among indigenous people in Africa, Canada, and Australia has shown that there are correlations between mental health and language maintenance.
People who continue to speak their ancestral languages tend to be more grounded and less prone to suicide. “If you lose your ancestral language, you cannot communicate with your ancestors anymore, and you lose touch with your past and sense of place, which leads to a feeling of alienation. For most of the people with whom I worked, communication with their deceased can most often only be conducted in the ancestral language.”