3. Linguistic Heritage

“Yes, I salute you, you the sons of the sea, you who lie beyond the sea. You have not experienced me that you may know me, that you may realize that the people in this country speak a beautiful language. Today you will get to know me through my tongue.”

Khoikhoi (!Ora/ Koranna) man “Mukalap” address to Third International Congress of Phonetic Sciences- Adapted from a translation by W. Haacke and E. Eiseb – Audio recording by Anthony Traill.

Praising his language, Mukalap, a native southern African sent greetings in the late 1930s to an audience of European delegates at the Third International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Ghent. That language, a symphony of clicks called !Ora (pronounced kora- one of the Khoekhoegowab dialects of South Africa), was spoken over a large area of southern Africa. Today it survives less in memory and practice than in documentation, such as this recording; to the extent that in 2012 only 2 known speakers are found in the Bloemfontein area.

Khoi-San languages, characterized by “click” sounds not found elsewhere in Africa, have experienced rapid decline in South Africa during the 1990s. Some of the remaining Khoi-San language speakers are believed to be San, living in the Kalahari Desert region in the Northern Cape and North-West Province. The closely related Khoikhoi, who were living in coastal areas of the southwest in the seventeenth century, have mostly been assimilated into other cultures, and many so-called Coloureds can trace their ancestry through Khoikhoi.

In 1927 Dorothy Bleek classified all the known hunter gatherer languages into three families, “Northern Bush”, “Central Bush”, and “Southern Bush”, and noted that the language of the Naron, a “Central Bush”- speaking people, was very close to Khoekhoe. Khoekhoe language was spoken with only minor variations over the whole of Southern Africa and was hence one of the most widely diffused tongues in Africa. Oral tradition is lacking especially in the Western Cape. Traditions were not collected by early European travelers, migrations out of the SW Cape led to the later disappearance during the rapid decline of independent Khoikhoi (Khoekhoe) societies in the region.

Khoi-San languages have come a long way but one challenge still remains — to hear Khoekhoegowab, and other San languages spoken in public. Some Bantu languages, notably Zulu and Xhosa, which are spoken near the Khoi-San area, have borrowed click sounds from the Khoi-San languages. Should Khoi-San languages be afforded official language status, its speakers will be able to demand that translation be done in their mother tongues in courts, among other places.

The Khoi-San language family groups of Southern Africa, which can be traced as far back to the late Stone Age, represent one of the oldest language family groups in the world, and the cultures which they transmit have taken thousands of years to develop. These languages have been threatened in a variety of ways. The traditional threat has been through the physical extermination of their speakers in the wake of European colonization, followed by repressive policies, marginalization, migration, cultural assimilation and acculturation. In modern times, this threat has receded to be replaced by new ones. The first of these involves formal and informal discrimination by the state and non-indigenous communities against speakers of indigenous languages. More insidious, however, has been an acceptance by members of indigenous language speech communities that their ancestral languages represent a barrier to economic and social advance. This produces unwillingness amongst older members of the community to transmit these languages to the young and/or unwillingness amongst the young to acquire and use these languages. Attempts to break the cycle of intergenerational transmitted poverty will never be successful as long as we disregard or underestimate the role and impact of indigenous languages in the educational, economic, social and cultural sectors of any society.


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