N|uu is one of South Africa’s oldest languages, and it is on the verge of extinction. But Katrina Esau is on a mission to preserve the endangered culture and language of the San People: an indigenous tribe that occupied the Northern Cape Province and is known as the first hunter-gatherers in the region.
The language is believed to have 112 distinct sounds and its main characteristic is clicks. It’s a language that has been passed down to generations orally. In 2013, UNESCO estimated that there were 7 N|uu speakers left.
Classified as critically endangered by Unesco, N|uu is one of three languages known to feature a “kiss-click” produced with both lips.
Growing up on a white-owned farm on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert in apartheid-era South Africa, Katrina Esau was forbidden by her employer to speak the language she had learnt from her mother. For half a century, the click-rich language N|uu, once spoken by the hunter-gatherers of the Northern Cape, today known as San or “bushmen”, was almost forgotten.
The muting of Esau’s community spread widely across the Afrikaans-speaking Northern Cape province, following centuries of extermination and assimilation of the San. For several decades it was thought that N|uu, like many of southern Africa’s original click languages, was extinct.
But in the late 90s, after the country had transitioned to majority rule, Elsie Vaalbooi, a N|uu speaker, appealed on local radio for other speakers to come forward. It emerged that there were around 20 ageing speakers of the language in the Northern Cape region.
Tango Negro: Exploring The African Roots Of Argentina’s Tango Dance
Within a few years, that number had dwindled drastically. Today, there is one known fluent speaker of N|uu – Esau, who is in her late eighties.
After decades of being banned from speaking the language of her forebears, Esau has dedicated the past two decades to teaching N|uu in an effort to preserve the San language and culture. Despite years of silence, she never lost her fluency. “I didn’t learn this language; I sucked it out of my mother’s breast,” she says in Lost Tongue, a film about N|uu made in 2016. “But I buried it at the back of my head.”
In a schoolroom at the front of her home in Upington, Esau teaches local children the original language of her homeland. Africa is the only continent with languages in which clicks are regular consonants. The single pipe after the “N” represents a dental click consonant which is produced with the tip of the tongue against the upper teeth. N|uu, now classified as critically endangered by Unesco, is one of just three languages known to feature a “kiss-click” produced with both lips.
To teach this extraordinarily rich language, Esau – who was never taught to read or write – uses song, play and images. It helps her pupils, aged from three to 19, learn basics such as greetings, body parts, animal names and short sentences.
They are the only students of N|uu in the world, learning a language with 114 distinct sounds, including 45 clicks, 30 non-click consonants and 39 vowels. To place this in context, English, Russian and Chinese have about 50 sounds.
In recent years, Esau’s mission has been assisted by academics Sheena Shah and Matthias Brenzinger. Together with community members, the three established a N|uu orthography – a set of conventions for writing a language – and created educational resources for Esau’s school.
Currently, N|uu is not the only language at risk of dying out in South Africa. Several communities are trying to revive languages such as Nama, which was a Khoisan language spoken by about 250 000 people in parts of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. “When you look at the African languages, you learn that they help communicate different perspectives on life, relationships, spirituality, the earth, health, humanity,” Brezinger told BBC recently.
According to government officials, Esau teaches at a small school located at the front of her house in Rosedale, outside Upington in the Northern Cape.
The work and determination to save the language have not gone unnoticed. Esau was awarded one of South Africa’s highest honors: the Order of the Baobab to honor her efforts to preserve the language and culture.
Swahili is the most spoken language in Africa, with over 140 million speakers. Also known as Kiswahili, the language is a Bantu language believed to have originated from other languages, specifically languages not native to Africa such as Arabic and Portuguese, following historical East African interactions with speakers of those languages.
It is the lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of eastern and south-eastern Africa, including Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Currently, Swahili is a national language of four countries, namely Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and the DRC. Shikomor, an official language in Comoros and spoken in Mayotte (Shimaore), is also related to Swahili.
Here are 6 interesting facts on Swahili.
- Different dialects of Swahili
Swahili, like many African languages, has dialects but interestingly some Swahili some dialects are so varied that other Swahili speakers cannot discern even though they may be in the same country.
Swahili operates on its own time
In most cultures, the clock, also the day, starts at midnight but not in Swahili. Their day starts at 6 or 7 am and this has been explained as a consequence of the equatorial placement of the countries that speak the language.
Basically, the time is measured from sunrise to sunset. This geographic phenomenon happens at the same time in all countries where Swahili is spoken in Africa.
Interestingly, Ethiopians often use the Swahili clock although it is not a Swahili-speaking country.
Thinking about learning an African language? Give Swahili a try. It’s the easiest African language for English speakers to learn, as it’s one of the few Sub-Saharan African languages without lexical tone, similar to English.
Besides speaking, Swahili is also easier to read as Swahili words are pronounced the same way they are written
Disney+ Teams Up With Kugali To Create Pan-African Comic Book Series “Iwájú “
It’s been around for centuries
The earliest piece of written Swahili documents dates to 1711. They were letters written in the Kilwa region. These letters were written to the Portuguese people of Mozambique and other local allies. To date, the remains of the documents are preserved in the Historical Archive of Goa in India.
- Full of idioms and proverbs
Swahili is famous for its idioms and proverbs that take the form of Mathali. Methali is a play on words, puns and lyrical rhyming and a very dominant feature of the Swahili language. Local rappers and musicians often employ methali in their music.
Example: Wapiganapo tembo wawili ziumiazo nyasi
Literal translation: When two elephants fight it’s the grass that gets hurt
Meaning: When the rich and powerful contend with each other it is the weak and powerless who pay the price.