Saving N|uu.

David Smith has a story in the Guardian about an effort to save a dying language:

Hanna Koper and her two sisters are thought to be the last remaining speakers of the San language N|uu, rated as critically endangered by Unesco. The San, also known as “bushmen”, were the first hunter-gatherers in southern Africa.

N|uu, which has 112 distinct sounds, was passed on orally down the generations but never written down. Now Koper and her siblings have worked with linguists to design alphabet charts with consonants, vowels and 45 different “clicks” that are typical of San languages, as well as rules of spelling and grammar.

Matthias Brenzinger, director of the Centre for African Language Diversity at the University of Cape Town, who is working on the project with British academic Sheena Shah, said: “It’s the most indigenous language of southern Africa.” […]

Brezinger has overseen the teaching of N|uu at a local school, where pupils learn basics such as greetings, body parts, animal names and short sentences. One teenage girl in particular is showing huge promise in the language but “at one stage there will be no fluent speaker any more”, he said.

That does not mean N|uu will necessarily be doomed to the archives, however. “With these languages, you never know,” said Brezinger. “Hawaiian was extinct basically, and then there was a movement 35 years ago and you have 2,000 mother tongue speakers of Hawaiian. […]

Koper, who lives near Upington in Northern Cape province, told South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper that when she was a girl in the days of white minority rule, she and her siblings were told their language was ugly. “We were told not to make noise and the baas [a Dutch word for supervisor] would shout at us if we spoke the language because they believed we were gossiping,” she was quoted as saying.

“This is my language. This is my bread. This is my milk. I didn’t learn it, but I ate it and this is how it is my language.”

I can’t get enough of these stories. Obviously not all languages can be saved, but when a group of speakers manages to fight the process of extinction, I consider it a small victory for humanity. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. Here’s the clip from The Linguists documentary on Nǀuu: YouTube. It Hanna Koper, among others, speaking in it.

  2. Language is the most important cultural asset, so if you lose your language, you lose your culture. In Canada, there is a clear link between those indigenous people who lose their language and suicide rates.

    I immediately thought to look up the suicide rate in Ireland among an indigenous people who have mostly lost their language, and bingo: it’s the highest in Europe among young females and the second-highest among young males. Naah, must be a coincidence.

  3. J. W. Brewer says

    What does the claim that this is “the most indigenous language of southern Africa” mean? Is it somehow “more indigenous” than any of the other San/Bushmen languages, some of which are in somewhat better shape? Or did something get garbled in transmission?

  4. Yes, I wondered about that too.

  5. Maybe it was meant to refer to the fact that the Khoi-San speakers seem to be the oldest layer of inhabitants in Southern Africa. It’s still makes it badly worded.

  6. I read it as “most endangered indigenous language”, with the critical word omitted.

  7. Trond Engen says

    Me too. But not before rereading and picking up “southern”.

  8. I first parsed it as “most endangered indigenous,” but upon rereading, I concluded that there was not a missing word. I think Hans has the right idea about how it’s supposed to be interpreted, although there’s probably a bit of fuzzy thinking leading to that statement.


  1. […] Hat reports on an effort to save the Nuu language of South […]

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