South African indigenous language’s last speaker fights to save language


Katrina Esau stopped speaking N|uu, her mother tongue, after being teased and told it was a “ugly language” as a child in South Africa’s Northern Cape.

She is still the sole surviving native speaker of N|uu, a South African indigenous language that was nearly wiped out as a result of colonialism and apartheid.

We stopped speaking the language as young girls out of shame. She did not speak English, but rather Afrikaans, the language of South Africa’s minority white government.

Esau realized the importance of her native tongue as she grew older and established a school in her hometown of Upington to ensure that it was passed down from generation to generation.

Southern Africa was home to a number of hunter-gatherer groups, one of which spoke N|uu before European colonizers arrived. Many of these natives’ languages, which belonged to the San language family, have since been lost.

The decline in Ouma Katrina speakers, according to linguist Lorato Mokwena of South Africa’s University of the Western Cape, can be traced back to the period of colonialism and apartheid, when the use of indigenous languages was discouraged.

Ouma Katrina Esau, the last fluent speaker of South Africa’s indigenous N|uu language, is on a mission in Cape Town to protect it.

She emphasized the importance of documenting and preserving the language while Ouma Katrina was still alive: “It’s important that we do the best that we can while Ouma Katrina is still alive.”

Katrina’s Ouma (meaning “grandmother”) Claudia Snyman began teaching N|uu to local children in 2005 and later opened a school with the assistance of her granddaughter and language activist.

The school grounds, however, are currently unoccupied due to vandalism during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“I’m very concerned. The language’s full potential has yet to be realized. Snyman, whose life goal is to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps by opening her own school, has expressed her fear that if her grandmother, Ouma, dies, the world will end.

Snyman stated, “I’ll do anything in my power to help her” in order to preserve the indigenous language.

Outside of her immediate family and the children she’s taught a few words and phrases, neither of Esau’s two surviving sisters can speak N|uu, and she doesn’t know anyone else who can.

“I really need to talk to someone,” she admitted. It’s not a pleasant feeling. You’re a walking, talking, and knowing machine. You yearn for a companion who can sit with you and converse in N|uu.


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