The fight to save a South African language with 45 clicks

TWO AND Half a millennium ago, the San had southern Africa to themselves, living lightly on the land as hunter-gatherers. Then came the Khoekhoen from the northeast to wrest part of the San hunting grounds for their cattle. The 17th century Dutch called hunter-gatherers “Boesmans” (“Bushmen”) after their habitat, while the Khoekhoen were “Hottentots”.

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The word Hottentot can mimic the click sound of the Khoekhoen’s speech. Africa is the only continent where clicks act as a sort of consonant in the basic sounds of word building.

Many of the original click-rich languages ​​of southern Africa have disappeared. For the complexity and the repertoire of its clicks, the language N | uu from a long dispersed subgroup of the San is among the most amazing creations of mankind. He has only two known speakers who have survived, both in their 80s. The bar after the N indicates a particular click of the tongue against the teeth. N | uu is one of the three languages ​​known to feature a click-kiss made with both lips.

Katrina Esau is one of the surviving pairs. Hear him speak N | uu is amazing, as if two pieces were playing at the same time, with a “normal” speech covered with a sprinkle of soft explosions.

Port Elizabeth was recently renamed Gqeberha, a word in Xhosa (South Africa‘s most widely spoken indigenous language, along with Zulu) that begins with a click. If the talent of pronouncing Gqeberha escapes many, consider that N | uu has 45. Ms. Esau devoted her last years to teaching. Illiterate, she uses a classroom next to her home to teach people in her North Cape community through songs, games and pictures. “I did not learn this language; I sucked it from my mother’s breast, ”Ms. Esau says in“ Lost Tongue, ”a N | u made in 2016. “But I buried it in the back of my head.

She buried him because a long time ago her white employers forbade her to say so. It was as if this ban, along with the extermination, dispersal and assimilation of the San, silenced the language. She was thought to be extinct until the 1990s, when a speaker N | uu, Elsie Vaalbooi, appealed on the radio for speakers to come forward. A writing system | uu has been recently developed. Esau’s granddaughter, Claudia Snyman, now teaches written language.

Linguists Sheena Shah and Matthias Brenzinger collaborated with locals to make this language teeming with 114 base units of sound with an extended version of the Latin alphabet. They hope the language revival will help rebuild the identity of the San.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Register a language in 45 clicks”

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