Three sisters hold key to preserving ancient San language (audio)

07 June 2015 - 02:00 By JAN BORNMAN


Three sisters from the Northern Cape, aged between 80 and 95, have become the driving force behind a quest to preserve a dying language. At 95, her sight almost totally gone, Ouma Hanna Koper, her younger sisters Griet Seekoei, 82, and Katrina Esau, 80, and their younger brother, Simon Sauel, 67, are among the only people able to speak the ancient San language of N|uu.They have been working with linguists to construct an alphabet and rules for the language believed to be 25000 years old."This is my language. This is my bread. This is my milk. I didn't learn it, but I ate it and that is how it is my language," said Koper, the oldest living speaker of N|uu.She lives in a hamlet outside Upington in the Northern Cape where her sister, Esau, has started a school to teach the language to younger generations.The language is considered critically endangered by world heritage body Unesco, but a team of linguists has now been able to craft alphabet charts with consonants, a variety of vowels, and the 45 different click sounds.As children growing up, Koper and her siblings were mocked by others and told that their language was ugly."We were told not to make noise, and the baas would shout at us if we spoke the language because they believed we were gossiping," said Ouma Hanna.Professor Matthias Brenzinger of the Centre for African Language Diversity at the University of Cape Town, who is driving the project, said this was exactly why languages died out.mini_story_image_hleft1N|uu was nearly wiped out because a marginalised community had opted to learn the language of others in order to survive, he said.Brenzinger and his team have been working with Esau to produce N|uu's orthography. This involved writing rules, spelling, capitalisation, word breaks, emphasis and punctuation.The team had its work cut out because everything about N|uu, from the knowledge of medicine to the stories and songs, used to be transferred only orally from one generation to the next.Esau received the Order of the Baobab for her contribution to the preservation of N|uu from President Jacob Zuma last year.The siblings are all descendants of the Khomani San who are spread out across the Northern Cape in towns and villages including Askham, Welkom, Rietfontein, Upington, Loubos and Olifantshoek.It was during a Khomani San land claim in the 1990s that the language, then thought to have been wiped out, was rediscovered.Esau, who was recently chosen as the first female leader of her people, sees the preservation of her language and culture as her duty."Other people have their own languages, why must my language be allowed to die?" she asked."It must go on. As long as there are people, the language must go on."Brenzinger said his team was not the first to help the community to write the language, but this was the first time alphabet charts had been created for learning and teaching purposes.N|uu, he said, has one of the largest speech sound inventories in the world, and includes more than 45 click phonemes, 30 non-click consonants and 37 vowels that make up more than 100 speech sounds.bornmanj@sundaytimes.co.za Listen to the N|UU language here: nbsp;

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