UCT supports five remaining speakers of Nǁng

13 Feb 2014 - 17:15
Dr. Matthias Brenzinger pictured with Hanna Koper, one of the last five speakers of Nǁng.

Pictured left: Dr. Matthias Brenzinger with Hanna Koper, one of the last five speakers of Nǁng.

In November 2013 and January 2014, Drs. Sheena Shah and Matthias Brenzinger (UCT Department of Linguistics) travelled to Upington in the Northern Cape to work with Katrina Esau, alias Ouma Geelmeid, on Nǀuu, the most endangered language of South Africa, spoken by only five people today. Together with her granddaughter, Claudia du Plessis, the only non-linguist who can read Nǀuu, Ouma Geelmeid is currently teaching her mother tongue to 25-35 children, in an effort to preserve this heritage language.

 Nǁng – with its Nǀuu and ǁ’Au varieties - is the last closely related language to ǀXam. ǀXam features prominently in the motto of the coat of arms of post-apartheid South Africa, but became extinct about 100 years ago. Widely spread among former hunter gatherers in the Northern Cape, Nǁng will also soon disappear. Even though the language is spoken by five elderly women only, two regional varieties have been maintained. Three sisters residing in Upington speak Nǀuu and two women in Olifantshoek ǁ’Au. Today the mother tongue of all members of the =Khomani community is Afrikaans and in addition some are proficient in Nama and English.  

Dr. Shah’s involvement with the community’s language maintenance activities supports the development of a practical orthography. The community-based language teaching efforts require professional input from linguists, as there is no curriculum and no training for the two Nǀuu teachers. Teaching and learning materials are urgently needed and Dr. Shah is helping to produce readers for the Nǀuu classes. She will return to Upington in mid-February with an alphabet chart as well as posters for teaching purposes and the official Nǁng orthography will be launched at a community workshop in March 2014.

As one of three postdoctoral research fellows, Dr. Shah joined CALDi (the Centre for African Language Diversity) which is located within the School of African Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics (AXL), in September 2013. The main focus of Dr. Shah’s academic assignment at UCT is to compile all existing language data and recordings on Nǁng. For that, she has established a network of all scholars who worked on Nǁng in more recent years. The language was thought to be extinct between the late 1960s and the late 1990s, but approximately 15 speakers were “rediscovered” around the turn of the millennium. Since then, most of them have passed away. In March, Dr. Shah will host an academic conference on this historically important language, once spoken in most of the Northern and Western Cape by highly disadvantaged and marginalized citizens. The conference will attract leading researchers in the field and one of its objectives will be to ensure that all existing Nǁng materials are archived and made accessible to the public through UCT’s online libraries and archives.

The Nǁng research activities initiated by CALDi in January 2012 are aimed at bridging academic language documentation activities and community aspirations on language maintenance efforts. Thanks to a Faculty of Humanities grant (Humanitec3), rare audio files of this language recorded in the 1960s by Prof. Ernst Westphal (Head of African Languages at UCT, 1962-1984) have been digitised. These recordings are not only of greatest value for linguistic research, but also of sentimental and practical importance for community members. The field trips were made possible through grants from UCT’s Research Office and from the Vice-Chancellor’s Fund at UCT