A tale of a language lost and then found

五月 24, 2002

A South African land claim led to a search for a native tongue not heard for 30 years. Chris Bunting picks up the trail.

In 1974, the N|u language was declared extinct. It was the last of the ancient !Ui family of languages, which had been spoken by bushmen hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari region of Southern Africa for more than 25,000 years. Indeed, some scholars said its incredibly complex system of clicks and tones was probably the most direct link we had to the first words ever spoken by human beings, untouched by the great movements of peoples from the original nurseries of language in Africa.

But the people who spoke N|u (pronounced n-click-nnn), the N | n≠e (the not equals sign stands for yet another type of click), had been annihilated by colonialism. Bantu-speaking pastoralists had taken their lands first, followed by the Dutch and British colonists. By the time Dorothea Bleek visited their communities in 1911, taking pictures and recording their language for the first time, they were already in grave danger.

In 1936, N | n≠e people submitted to being exhibited at the Johanesberg British Empire Exhibition as remnants of a dying people. Casts were taken of their heads and measurements made of their genitalia as the authorities debated whether they were really aborigines or should be thrown off the newly created National Park occupying their traditional lands. Most of the bushmen exhibited were not allowed to return home.

As apartheid took hold in South Africa, the plight of the bushmen worsened. By 1974, when the respected linguist Tony Traill declared the death of their language, they were living in abject poverty at the very fringes of the racial system. Nigel Crawhall, a sociolinguist working for the South African San (bushmen) Institute, says: "Most of the young people had no idea they were bushmen. They were living in the most disgusting conditions. Many had been registered as coloureds and their parents had never told them their real identity to try to avoid stigma. I was recently talking to one woman who said she had studied the bushmen at school and that she had been told they were short, yellow and were all dead. She had only just found out that she was one of them."

The annihilation was so complete that, following the collapse of apartheid and the launch of a land claim by remnants of the bushmen communities, lawyers for the national park that occupied their land claimed it would be impossible to prove these people, who spoke Afrikaans and had Afrikaans names, were descendants of the original inhabitants.

But rumours of the survival of the original language persisted among the bushmen. Crawhall, who worked on the land claim, recalls: "David Kruiper, who was the elected head of the community, said he thought there would still be people in the desert who spoke it. It seemed unlikely because it had been officially dead for 30 years, but we asked our lawyers who were registering people for the claim to ask people whether they knew anybody who spoke the language."

In February 1997, they struck gold. "There was a very old woman in Rietfontein called Elsie Vaalbooi who allegedly still spoke the language. We got Tony Traill, who had just compiled a CD of lost languages, including a 1930s recording of this one, to go out there and check her out.

"When we met her she said she was 96. She hadn't heard her language for 30 years and she thought she was the last person on the Earth to speak it. Traill played the CD to her. The first two tracks she couldn't understand but when we put on the third track she jumped. It was her language. She was very emotional about it.

"In fact, we have since discovered that Elsie was not 96. Later on in my research I found a picture of Elsie and her mother from Bleek's visit in 1911. She had breasts in that picture. She was about 15. Elsie thinks she is turning 100 this year but in fact she is 107," Crawhall says.

Elsie was a momentous discovery for the land claim lawyers, directly linking the bushmen to the land they claimed. In 1999, they were given 65,000 hectares by the South African government. But the rebirth of the N|u language had only just begun.

Crawhall and the British anthropologist Hugh Brody combed the South African townships. "We began to find more people. Everyone who we found, with the exception of one, was living in terrible poverty," Crawhall says. "They were so old that they had become surplus to the labour system of the Northern Cape so they had just been dumped by society. I found one woman in a shack. She was barely alive, she was in rags, with urine on her dress and yet she became one of my best sources."

The researchers also found three sisters who had been exhibited in the 1936 exhibition: "They just burst into song. They started singing this trance dance. They were so delighted that their language was being recognised."

Twenty surviving speakers have been discovered and the N|u tongue is defying all theories of language death. The Namibian linguist Levi Namaseb has created an alphabet, is teaching the language to young people in the community and recording traditional stories from the elders. The first book in N|u will come out later this year.

"The enthusiasm of the young people and their ability in the language has been extraordinary. It is the rock around which they are building a new sense of identity," says Crawhall, who is also learning the language. "We are not saying that this language is going to be fully recovered. The people who speak it fluently are aged between 65 and 107. It is very difficult to see it being used every day by the younger people. But it will survive in the culture. It is a very rare case of a story about a dying language with at least the hint of a happy ending."



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