Saving southern Africa’s oldest languages

Language and identity are inextricably interlinked. So what happens when a language dies, or is suppressed?

When Katrina Esau spoke to her older sister, Griet Seekoei, they spoke in N|uu. It is a language that only they – and their brother, Simon Sauls – could understand. “Griet was a wonderful person,” Esau recalls. “Strict, but wonderful.”

Ouma Griet, as she was known, died in May aged 87. Now there are just two remaining speakers of N|uu. “It makes me very sad. No language is more important than another language,” Esau told the Mail & Guardian, speaking from her home in Upington in South Africa’s Northern Cape province.

!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 dominated.

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 language.

Sisters in conversation: Katrina Esau and Griet Seekoei share a joke (James Oatway/Sunday Times/Gallo)

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.

Praise singer: Bradley van Sitters ushers in the president ahead of the 2019 State of the Union address. (Brenton Geach/Gallo)

“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 identity.

“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.

This feature first appeared in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Get your free copy here.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.
Refiloe Seiboko
Subeditor at Mail & Guardian

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