Indigenous “Khoisan” languages: an interview with Menán du Plessis

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International Mother Language Day will be celebrated on 21 February. According to the United Nations, this day "promote[s] linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism". The theme for 2018 is "Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development":
To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language, or mother tongue, that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, and thus play an important role in promoting sustainable futures.
Menán van Heerden chats to Menán du Plessis about indigenous languages in South Africa and Namibia.

Oupa Dawid Cooper, one of the last speakers of Kora, talking to Menán du Plessis in 2011 outside his home in Bloemside, on the outskirts of Bloemfontein.

Menán, you are an expert in “Khoisan” linguistics. How would you define Nama and Khoekhoegowab?
Nama is the southern dialect of the cluster collectively referred to as Namibian Khoekhoe – or, in the language itself, as Khoekhoegowab. (Khoekhoe is pronounced as though it were “Khwekhwe”, and the letter w in the word gowab, meaning “language”, is pronounced as it is in Afrikaans. The word spelled goba or gowa means “speak”, and the -b at the end is the suffix of the 3rd person masculine singular.)
There was a time when people tended to refer to all of the Khoekhoe dialects spoken in Namibia as “Nama”, but this was eventually recognised as being disrespectful to speakers in the northern parts of the country who speak other closely related dialects, such as varieties of Dama, and Heiǁom. The official term now preferred is the more inclusive language name, Khoekhoegowab (or, as we should say in English, Namibian Khoekhoe). There is a sizable population of Khoekhoe speakers in Namibia today: perhaps as many as 200 000, if not more.
There are several other varieties of Khoekhoe, some of them also found (or, at least, once found) in South Africa, where they were spoken by the numerous clans of the herding people who came to be referred to as the Khoikhoi, Khoekhoen or Khoi. The Namaqua clans of the far Northern Cape spoke a variety of Nama, while some of the clans nearest to the Cape itself spoke a variety of Khoekhoe that was most closely related to the dialects spoken by the Korana people of the interior. There were other South African varieties, too, such as Giri – spoken by the Griqua, who seem to have been originally from the Western Cape coastal area – and Gona, spoken in the Eastern Cape.
The KHOE family of languages consists not only of the branch that linguists term Khoekhoe, however, but also of a Kalahari branch, which is divided up, in turn, into various subgroups, which include Khwe, Naro, ǁGana-ǀGui, Shua and Tshwa. These languages are distributed across south-eastern Angola, the Caprivi Strip and Botswana, and even extend marginally into the south-western fringes of Zimbabwe. There are some speakers of Khwe dialects now living in South Africa, but these people came originally from the general area of the Caprivi, and were only relocated to South Africa at the end of the apartheid era. Most speakers of languages from the Kalahari branch of the KHOE family were traditionally hunter-gatherers.
With the arrival of the colonists at the Cape, the Khoikhoi subsequently “lost their language” due to, for example, acculturation, according to Gerald Groenewald.

He also states that in Namibia, Nama “remained the mother tongue of many people, and is even used in schools and churches”.

What were the socio-linguistic consequences of the aforementioned acculturation at the Cape for the Khoikhoi in South Africa today?

Yes, indeed, you have accurately summarised these consequences. It is clear from early historical records that many of the Cape Khoi (especially the clans closest to the Dutch settlement) learned to speak Dutch very early on. In some cases, it seems they may even have switched altogether to the language of the settlers, although in many other cases, it is clear that they retained their own Khoekhoe variety, as well – effectively becoming bilingual. The Nama communities of the Northern Cape managed to hold on to their original language until very recently. This may have been aided by the existence of a widely accepted missionary orthography and the existence of texts (including Bible translations) in the language. In fact, Nama is, for all practical purposes, the only extant Khoekhoe variety (and, indeed, the only Khoisan language of any kind) still spoken in South Africa today. Most of the remaining Nama speakers in South Africa (perhaps around 2 000 of them) are aged at least 50 or upwards, however, although attempts are now being made to reintroduce the language as an additional subject at schools in the Northern Cape. 

By contrast, when Louis Maingard from Wits University went in search of speakers of Kora in the 1930s, he found only a few dozen people who still retained a fluency in the language. Many of these last speakers were already, by then, in their 80s, and one or two were even centenarians. This makes it truly remarkable that the historian Mike Besten managed, in 2007, to locate a few elderly people from the Korana community who still remembered the language. I had the huge privilege to be involved in a critically urgent emergency project, formulated with Mike and community activists, to obtain recordings from two of these speakers between 2011 and 2012. Both of the speakers we worked with have since passed away, and there is now, to the best of our knowledge, only one reasonably fluent speaker left.

The Bible Society of South Africa initiated the translation of the Bible into !Xun, a San language.

Also, LitNet interviewed one of the compilers of the first picture dictionary of a San language, namely the Juǀhoan Tsumkwe dialect. How would you define these languages?

!Xun is really a spectrum of between 11 and 16 dialects, where the exact number of dialects differs depending on which linguist is doing the counting! This group is also sometimes referred to as the JU family, and may also be called “Northern Khoisan”. Linguists in the past have tended to distinguish three broad divisions within JU, namely the more southern Juǀ’hoan, as found at Tsumkwe, plus two northern divisions, which were traditionally referred to as !Xun (the !Kung of some older works).

What are the main differences between the San and Khoi languages, and how would you define the different San and Khoi languages?

Yes, there is certainly a great deal of confusion about this! It is useful to keep in mind that neither of the terms “Khoi” or “San” refers to a language group. As we discussed earlier, some speakers of KHOE languages were traditionally herders – the Khoi of the early Cape and the interior of the country, as well as the Little and Great Namaqualand areas. Other speakers of KHOE languages – in particular, languages belonging to the Kalahari branch of the family – were traditionally hunter-gatherers. Although Naro (Kalahari KHOE) is said to be fairly homogeneous, most of the other Khoekhoe and Kalahari languages are made up of a number of dialects, as we would expect of any language.

Apart from the KHOE family, there are two other major families subsumed under the convenient catch-all label of “Khoisan”: namely, the JU family and the TUU (or !Ui-Taa) family. Languages from both these last two groups were, and still are, spoken by people whose lifestyle was traditionally based on a hunter-gatherer type of economy, and who have sometimes been referred to by the Khoekhoe term “San” (where the letter a indicates a long vowel).

From a typological point of view, the single greatest difference between KHOE languages and languages of the other two families is that all KHOE languages have a gender system that classifies nouns as masculine, singular or common, whereas JU and TUU languages generally have systems of multiple genders, where the classifications do not correlate with natural gender, but are based on factors such as “humanness”, “animacy” and so on. Of course, there are other features that distinguish JU and TUU languages from KHOE, as well as numerous differences between JU and TUU themselves: it is even a matter of ongoing debate whether the three major groups are even related to one another!

What does the term “Khoisan” mean?

The term Khoisan is simply a label of convenience and is used by linguists in a very general way to refer collectively to the three main families of southern African languages that use clicks as part of their phoneme inventories – but which are not (or, at least, are not obviously) related to any languages of the immense BANTU family. As we’ve already noted, not everyone is in agreement that the three families of southern Africa are actually even related. Some linguists also include two “click languages” of Tanzania, namely Hadza and Sandawe, under the general heading of “Khoisan”, but there is no strong evidence that the two are even related to each other, let alone to any of the southern African families.

Is it more accurate to write Khoekhoe than to write Khoikhoi?

On the issue of Khoekhoe versus Khoikhoi versus Khoekhoen: this is as much debated as almost every other issue pertaining to this field! It is true, at least, that the Khoekhoe root meaning “person” is more accurately represented as khoe than as khoi. The use of the reduplicated form reflects a usage within the language itself, however – as does the use of the suffix -n, which marks the 3rd person common plural. There is a long tradition, nevertheless, of representing the name in German and English writing as Khoikhoi, even though the most natural anglicised version would, strictly speaking, not include the reduplication. For my part, I prefer to use the well established and appropriately naturalised term “Khoi” for writing in English – although I would hesitate to be too prescriptive on this point!

Ouma Jacoba Maclear, one of the last speakers of Kora, at her home in Bloemhof. The team worked with Ouma in December 2011, just a week before she was due to turn 100.

How are the “Basters” (a derogatory name), Griquas and Oorlams defined?

The “Basters” were a mixed community consisting of people of largely Khoi descent. Some of them settled at Klaarwater (later Griquastad), along with a number of Korana clans. When the missionary John Campbell, in the early part of the 19th century, expressed his horror at the degrading name, members of the community elected to change it to Griqua, after an old clan of the west coast. The name Oorlams, as far as I know, was given to the earliest of the Cape clans who chose to move north and across the Gariep, after they had already been influenced by aspects of the Dutch settlement.

The Damara speak varieties of Dama (a closely related dialect of Nama). Therefore, it appears as if the languages overlap between groups?

On Dama: yes, there are several varieties of this northern set of Namibian Khoekhoe dialects. The Damara people do not bear much physical resemblance to the Nama people of the south, it is true; while, at the same time, we know that a section of the Damara people (the Cattle Damara) spoke a variety of Herero. For my part, I am reluctant to speculate about the reasons for any of this, or even to dwell on aspects of physiology at all. (There is a deeply unfortunate history in southern Africa of scholars seeking to draw biology into linguistics.)

Which Khoi and San languages are used in, for example, the curriculum (school and university), media, literature, etcetera in South Africa as well as in Namibia? Or, are these languages primarily spoken languages?

Are there many speakers left?

Namibia is the only country in southern Africa that gives official recognition to a Khoisan language. This is Khoekhoegowab (that is, the 16 or so dialects of Nama, Dama and Heiǁom). The language is offered as a subject at both school and university level in Namibia. As we’ve already noted, there are perhaps as many as 200 000 speakers, if not more. The language is still actively being transmitted from one generation to the next and is used by speakers in all domains, from the intimate one of the home to more official and public ones. There is a well established new orthography, and the language is well resourced in general.

As far as other Khoisan languages in Namibia are concerned, the American anthropologist Megan Biesele has worked, with the help of linguist Patrick Dickens, to establish Village Schools, where children from rural Juǀ’hoan-speaking communities can, at least, receive their earliest education in their mother tongue. Patrick Dickens helped to develop a practical community orthography for the language and also wrote a grammar for use by teachers. The picture dictionary you mentioned earlier makes an invaluable contribution to this project.

The total number of speakers of JU dialects (spanning Angola, Namibia and Botswana) is not certain, but has recently been estimated by Bernd Heine and Christa König to lie somewhere between 10 000 and 15 000.

In Botswana, there is no official support for any of the Khoisan languages found there, which include languages belonging to Kalahari KHOE, as well as varieties of JU and TUU. The missionary Hessel Visser has successfully worked with members of the Naro community, however, to establish a community orthography and provide texts in this Kalahari KHOE language. It is thought that there may be a total of around 25 000 speakers of the various Kalahari KHOE languages combined.

In South Africa today, as we’ve noted, it is effectively only Nama (Khoekhoe KHOE) that is still spoken. Shortly after the ending of apartheid, the discovery was made of about two dozen elderly people who still remembered varieties of Nǀuu, which was one of the !Ui languages (TUU family) formerly spoken by the San people of South Africa. There was a flurry of work on the part of mainly foreign linguists, who came in to document the language over the next decade and a half. There are now, I believe, only three of these elderly speakers remaining. There are some speakers of Khwe (Kalahari KHOE), and also some speakers of JU varieties, now living in South Africa, but these speakers came originally from the Caprivi area, and were only relocated to South Africa in the aftermath of the liberation struggle.

There are “Khoisan” who demand recognition of Khoekhoegowab as an official language. Why is this language not one of the official languages, given that “it’s already on the coat of arms”.

As we’ve seen, it is only Nama that is still spoken in South Africa – and even that only by a few thousand senior people, which means that the language is no longer being passed on intergenerationally. The language reflected in our new coat of arms is, in fact, not Nama but ǀXam, which was the other major !Ui language once spoken by the San people of South Africa. (By chance, the motto happens to include a word that is indeed borrowed from Khoekhoe, namely ǀxara, meaning “other” or “different”!)

I can understand and even empathise with the feelings of activists who demand that Nama should be made one of the official languages. However, I also think we need to be pragmatic. It would cost a vast sum of money to provide the levels of support, resources and infrastructure that would be needed if Nama were truly to be placed on an equal footing with the eleven other official languages (soon, hopefully, to be joined by South African sign language). Given the very tiny size of the Nama-speaking population, this could well be unnecessarily extravagant, and possibly even a misdirected allocation of scarce funds. I can’t help thinking it might be a wiser use of state resources to support local projects that aim, say, to develop language courses and materials, and perhaps foster cultural activities rooted in the language.

I think that interventions of this second, more practical kind are perhaps what the authors of our constitution had in mind when they wrote about the establishment of a Pan South African Language Board to “promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of” (i) all official languages; (ii) the Khoi, Nama and San languages; and (iii) sign language. (Of course, while the sentiment is clear, you’ll appreciate from everything we’ve discussed here that the wording of (ii) is almost meaningless!)

Tell us more about your forthcoming book (a chapter is published on South African History Online), wherein you have published recordings from two of the last speakers of Kora.

Thank you for asking about the book! It is called Kora: A lost Khoisan language of the early Cape and the Gariep, and is finally due to appear any month now, from Unisa Press in collaboration with SA History Online.

The language of the Korana people was well described by older authors, beginning with the missionary Carl Wuras, who worked from the 1840s onward, and who was followed, in 1879, by Lucy Lloyd, who obtained vocabulary, example phrases and sentences and a small collection of stories and other narratives from Piet Links. During the early part of the 20th century, more detailed documentations and further collections of stories, as well as compilations of vocabulary, were undertaken by Carl Meinhof, Louis Maingard and Jan Engelbrecht, while a study of the phonetics and tonology was made by Douglas Beach. Despite all this work, only two short audio recordings were ever made!

The idea for the book came about after I responded to an appeal for help from Mike Besten and, thanks to him, had the amazing opportunity to meet one of the speakers he had found. In the course of subsequent long and intense conversations with Mike and various community-based activists, it occurred to me how inaccessible all the early material mentioned above now was to the very people whose heritage it represented. And, gradually, it occurred to us that we should use the almost miraculous opportunity we had been given to obtain recordings of as much of the language as possible, and then find some way to incorporate this audio material into a kind of compendium or complete resource for the language, which would include a reference grammar, an annotated collection of all the old texts, and a “talking dictionary”. I suppose the idea was, essentially, to find some way to return as much as possible of this virtually lost and forgotten national treasure to all South Africans – but, above all, to restore it to the people who are its rightful owners. Some of the community members I met were already making efforts to learn Nama, and it seemed to me that, with their being armed with that existing knowledge, the book I had in mind would even enable them to approach the Kora texts in the original language.

There were some terrible setbacks along the way, including the tragic death of Mike Besten. Apart from everything else, local academic institutions were rather shockingly indifferent, and it proved surprisingly difficult to obtain funding. It was only after the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS awarded us a small grant that we were able to carry out the increasingly urgent fieldwork and obtain recordings from Oupa Dawid Cooper of Bloemfontein, and Ouma Jacoba Maclear of Bloemhof. (Both of them passed away only two years later.) Members of our fieldwork team included deeply committed community activists from both Bloemfontein and Cape Town, as well as two Nama-speaking linguists, namely Levi Namaseb and Niklaas Fredericks. As for the writing up of the book, I was only finally freed from financial worry and in a position to sit down and complete the work after a stint in the USA, where I spent a semester teaching at the generous invitation of Mark Kornbluh, who is the dean of arts and science at the University of Kentucky.

I was never quite clear on the details of how we would incorporate the audio aspects of the project, until I accidentally met up again with an old comrade from the struggle days, Omar Badsha. With the utmost generosity, he instantly offered to host the online sections on the website of SA History Online, and after that, things simply fell into place. I am especially happy that the online version will be freely and openly accessible to everyone. (As for the print version, I have waived any royalties in an effort to keep the cost to the public as low as possible.) Of course, speaking of accessibility, I would dearly love to have the book appear also in Afrikaans, since this is the language most widely spoken by the present day descendants of the Korana people. This aspect of the project is one that still remains to be fulfilled, however.

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  • Johannes Comestor

    Die boek verskyn net in Engels. 'n Mens sou redelikerwys verwag dat hierdie onderhoud in Afrikaans gevoer en in Afrikaans op LitNet gepubliseer word, des te meer omdat die veldwerk sekerlik in Afrikaans gedoen is. 'n Van Heerden en 'n Du Plessis gee egter voorkeur aan Engels. Daar word na Gerald Groenewald verwys.
    In haar boek, Sitting pretty (2017), verwys Christi van der Westhuizen (nog 'n Afrikaanssprekende met 'n voorkeur vir Engels) na die Groenewalds: "We are doing a project again with the Groenewalds so it is taking long ... Meaning? ... That is the black people ... green for Groenewald" (p 46). Die outeur se (lomp en oordrewe) verduideliking lui: "The colour green, which does not appear naturally in the human skin, is used to denote black, with the effect of rendering blackness even more other – to the point of being alien, in multiple senses of not being from here and even being extraterrestrial. This is done in the mode of ordentlikheid, as an elaborate word game is used instead of 'crude' racial slurs. The paradoxes of this manoeuvre include that the common Afrikaans surname Groenewald, with groen translating as 'green', is used to indicate black people. The 'cleverness' of the word game, as opposed to 'crude' racism, functions to further elevate the player of the game in relation to her/his object" (p 46-47). Hierdie aanhalings gee 'n goeie aanduiding van die aard van hierdie boek.
    Later herkou Van der Westhuizen hierdie saak verder met 'n meer vergesogte vertolking: "This construction hinges on an understanding of race as a skin-based property that belongs to black people, as opposed to white people whose lighter skins render them race-less [!] and therefore as representing the unmarked normative standard of humanness." (p 184). Ek kan kwalik glo dat Van der Westhuizen haar eie verduideliking glo.

  • Pragtige taaltjies en kulture. Mense eenvoudig leef hulle nog na aan die aarde. Mag hulle lank lewe. So uniek - eie aan daardie gewestes. So dankbaar daar is mense soos die skrywer en onderdhoudvoerder wat navorsing daaroor doen en ondersteun.
    La chaim

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