The death of a `useless language'

Nigel Crawhall

EDDIE KOCH’S article last week on the demise of South African San languages (“Last voice of an ancient tongue”) has broken the silence on a national disgrace. With financial assistance from Denmark, the Southern African San Institute (Sasi) is supporting Khoi and San communities to develop strategies for language survival.

The road to recovery requires a commitment from government departments and the public. Few people are aware of the facts. There are three Khoesan language families and it is only the Southern family that is becoming extinct. Elsie Valbooi is the last native speaker of /‘Auni, which is the last Southern San language. There are people like Anna Swarts who speak phrases of =Khomani, a sister language to /‘Auni. The other two families, the Central (Khoe) languages and Northern San languages are spoken by over 100 000 people in Southern Africa. Some of these languages are vibrant and taught in schools. The communities have adapted to new circumstances without language loss.

In South Africa there are two Khoe languages: Nama spoken by several thousand people in Namaqualand and along the Orange River, and Kxoedam, spoken by 1000 people living at Schmidtsdrift, the South African National Defence Force military base outside Kimberley. Fragments of Gri and !Ora are known by people living around Campbell, and possibly in other parts of the country. There is one Northern San language in South Africa, !Xu spoken by more than 3000 people at Schmidtsdrift.

Communities do not voluntarily give up their languages. Circumstances in the external environment, usually economic or political, cause people to lose confidence in what they know, and give in to the dominant culture.

Throughout Southern Africa, the main cause for language death has been people’s displacement from traditional lands and related economic practices. Almost all Khoi and San people suffer from land encroachment. As recently as last month, Namibia seized land occupied by the Kxoe people. Land-related civil rights abuses against the /Gwi, //Ana and !X’o in Botswana and Zimbabwe have endangered these communities and their languages.

Khoi and San people were, in most cases, forced to register as coloured, and were dispossessed of land under apartheid. The humiliation and anger of that time was expressed to Sasi during recent community consultations in Pella, a town on the Orange River. “We were told we were coloured, that Nama was a useless language, that our traditions were nothing. Our history was hidden from us.”

Pella was originally a San settlement, later taken over by !Ora and Nama speakers, then occupied by Afrikaans-speaking Griquas and Basters and eventually brought under white rule. Now the original languages are dead, though hundreds of residents still speak Nama as their first language. No Khoe or San language has ever been taught in a South African school. In most Nama communities the older people speak fluently. It is the young who are embarrassed to speak the language. They never hear the languages in school, on television or radio.

At present, schools treat indigenous communities as if they have no knowledge of their own. Saving the languages is part of restoring confidence and dignity in traditional knowledge and skills within the communities. Khoe and San languages should be used as the basis for teaching environmental sciences, geography, history and other subjects. By developing the curriculum out of the community’s experience, it gives the languages a new purpose and future.

The old way of hunting, gathering and sheep rearing using vast areas of land is no longer viable. For the languages to survive, the bush terminology must be applied in a new economic system. As a resident of Goodhouse points out, knowing the Nama word for bread does not allow you to eat it.

The Nama language is being given a new life by being linked to new sources of income. Richtersveld National Park is sponsoring a field guide training programme that uses local knowledge and terminology. Nama speakers have a tremendous knowledge of animal behaviour, tracking, plant identification and an understanding of the subtleties of the ecosystem. One field guide trainee, Simon Fredricks, is the elected captain of the Nama in the Khubus, and is playing a leading role in restoring pride in the language. He believes that survival starts at home. “I take my grandson out into the veld. I point out a wildbok and I say the name in Nama. That’s how he is learning.”

Health care is a major concern where traditional knowledge can be tapped. “We used to dance all night. Young people cannot do that any more. The old people were so healthy in the past when we used our medicines,” says Anna Julie, a Nama elder in the village of Witbank on the banks of the Orange River. Julie and her friends tell about all the medicinal plants in the area entirely in Nama. Like most Khoi and San people, the Witbank Namas have been driven off their lands and do not have access to the veldkos that keept them healthy.

The =Khomani San are negotiating for land restitution in the Southern Kalahari and want to use their traditional veldkennis to help promote environmentally aware tourism. Conservation agencies are recognising that indigenous communities hold information that could be vital to global survival. Their methods of adaptation, their knowledge of plants, animals, and conservation, are in some cases superior to Western knowledge. Important medical drugs have been discovered in these communities, including quinine and curare.

—Nigel Crawhall is a sociolinguist heading Sasi’s language project

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