N|uu: South Africa’s oldest San language, with only 2 people on Earth who speak this ancient SA language.
Imagine speaking a language that is spoken by only four people on the planet and you are 84 and can’t read or write. This is the story of Katrina Esau, one of the four siblings who speak N|uu. The language is believed to be more than 25000 years old and is spoken by the San people.
Like other San languages, N|uu is a melody of clicks, often punctuated by exclamation marks when written.
N/uu is the most endangered, still spoken language of Southern Africa. N/uu was thought to be extinct among expert linguists, but in the late 1990s, about 20 elderly speakers revealed their competence in this language. As of May 2020, only two elderly people from the ǂKhomani community still speak N/uu.
N/uu is the last surviving member of the !Ui branch of the Tuu language family, with all other members of this branch – /Xam, ǂUngkue and //Xegwi – being extinct. Speakers of !Ui languages were the first people living in today’s Southern Africa. They lived as hunter-gatherers before being forced into assimilation by intruding white settlers and their Nama- or Afrikaans-speaking clients. Until today, the members of the ǂKhomani community remain to be among the most marginalised and disadvantaged people of South Africa.
The last speakers of N/uu
Katrina Esau and her brother, Simon Sauls, are the last remaining speakers of N/uu. Neither of them uses N/uu in natural conversation in their daily lives, but remember that they did so as children and adolescents. Instead, they communicate in Afrikaans, which is the mother tongue of the ǂKhomani community. Their sisters, Hanna Koper and Griet Seekoei, both fluent speakers of N/uu, passed away in March 2020 and May 2020, respectively.
Esau, who lives in the small township of Rosedale attached to Upington in the Northern Cape, has the status of a chief in her community. Mariana Chibia and children in Platfontein, Northern Cape. The community consists of two San tribes
She is the only one who is actively involved in the preservation of this language after the apartheid government stopped its use..
But “Ouma Katrina”, as she is affectionately known, is not in good health and worries about what will happen to her language once she dies.
In an interview with the BBC, Ouma Katrina Esau (Ouma Geelmeid), said that when they were children, they only spoke N/uu and they heard a lot of people speaking the language. “Those were good times, we loved our language but that has changed,” Esau said in the interview.
According to Sheena Shah, a linguist from the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London, who worked with the family, N/uu is the last surviving member of the !Ui branch of the Tuu language family.
Another sibling, 70-year-old Lena Sauls, does not speak the language. Lena Sauls who says she understands the language, in Upington, South Africa. She lives with Simon Sauls, who is purportedly one of two remaining speakers of the N|uu San language
“I would love to have a proper school, not this little school in my yard. The people must speak the language. The children must be able to speak. I want to see different people speak N|uu. Not just the Bushman, but different people,” Esau said.
N/uu language teaching efforts
Ouma Geelmeid is the only speaker actively teaching N/uu. For over a decade, she was assisted by her granddaughter, Claudia du Plessis. Ouma Geelmeid is non-literate, but Claudia is one of the few community members who can read and write N/uu. Since 2016, David van Wyk assists Ouma Geelmeid and manages the N/uu language school, Staar na die Sterre.
Approximately 25-40 children from the neighbourhood are taught N/uu words, phrases and songs three times a week for roughly two hours per day.
Development of the N/uu reader
The main outcome of this project is a 160-page trilingual N/uu-Afrikaans-English reader entitled Ouma Geelmeid ke k’xu //xa//xa N/uu. Ouma Geelmeid’s school received 300 free copies of the printed version and the reader is also freely accessible on OpenUCT. In 2017, the N/uu reader received the annual award from the ATKV (Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging), the Afrikaans language and cultural association, in the category of dictionaries.
The N/uu reader comprises twelve thematic areas with phrases and sentences derived from everyday conversations, as well as games, prayers and songs. Core cultural terms and basic vocabulary used by Ouma Geelmeid were added in N/uu-Afrikaans-English and Afrikaans-N/uu-English glossaries.