Why My Grandmother and I Are Working to Save the Language of South Africa's First People
Claudia Snyman is a 29-year-old educator living in the Northern Cape province of South Africa who, along with her grandmother, is working hard to preserve the N/uu language of the Indigenous San people of South Africa.
The N/uu language, which is believed to be over 25,000 years old, is in critical danger of becoming extinct, and Snyman’s family is among the last remaining speakers of the language. Here, she shares why this work is so important to her, and the immense importance of ensuring that the original people of South Africa do not lose their language and their heritage.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
As I was growing up in Upington in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, my grandmother, Katrina Esau, taught me to speak the N/uu language, which is her mother tongue.
The N/uu language is the language of the San people who were the first hunter-gatherers in southern Africa millennia ago — and my grandmother is one of its last remaining speakers.
The language is under threat because the colonialist and apartheid governments forced our forefathers to speak Afrikaans and, in turn, we forgot our own language. Every time people ask her why her own children don’t speak N/uu, she tells them that white people told them it was an “ugly” language and prevented them from passing it on.
My grandmother is 87 years old and her brother, Simon Sauls — the other last known fluent speaker of N/uu — is just over 70, and neither of them is in good health.
The other big challenge is that we do not have the N/uu words for newer words like microwave, airplane, blender, and so on, because they didn’t use those kinds of things, so now we have to form or make new words.
We are currently busy with compiling a talking dictionary, but we don’t know most of the words and my grandmother can’t remember them all. It is difficult work, but we keep trying our best because the dictionary could help preserve our language. We have also put together a N/uu reader which is freely available for download.
We believe that language is at the core of any culture, so we have made it our mission to raise awareness about N/uu and fight for the preservation of our language and culture.
We teach using oral instruction because we want people to hear the language first. It is important for us to get the language out there and on people’s tongues. We hope that once people understand and speak it well, we will be able to introduce them to writing N/uu. When we teach, we cover basic sentences such as how to ask for water and food and also how to ask someone’s name. We also teach body parts and animals.
I would go to the ends of the earth to ensure that our language lives on and is recognised worldwide, because I am very proud of my culture and my heritage.
It is beautiful and inclusive; it teaches us compassion and humility, and encompasses the spirit of Ubuntu (which is the philosophy that says a person is a person through other people and our shared humanity). It also has a strong focus on healing through herbal mixtures and remedies that were discovered, used, and practiced by our forefathers and passed down from one generation to the next. I have been doing this for 14 years now without any salary because this is a project that is very close to my heart.
It is very important for us to make sure that people learn the language so that it does not die out. It is important for us to preserve this culture so that future generations can know and respect it.
When we asked the former South African president Thabo Mbeki about getting land (which had been lost through colonialism and apartheid) for the descendants of the San, he asked us to find people who could speak the N/uu language so we could show that they were actual people in the group who could be beneficiaries of land reform. So the language is also important because it connects us to the land and the history of this country.
My grandmother wants to know that her culture and legacy will continue to live on for many generations to come. She would like for her language to be seen in books, taught in schools, talked about on TV, and stay alive. I hope to study linguistics and to write more children’s books in N/uu that children can use to read by themselves. I want to hear people having conversations in my grandmother’s mother tongue; I want to go from place to place, such as universities and schools, teaching people the language.
And I would like to see the government recognise my language as an official language in my lifetime because, like South Africa's 11 other official languages, it can be written, read, and spoken.
As descendants of the land of Azania, we would like for our language to be recognised so that we may not go down in history as the forgotten clan.
If you're a writer, activist, or just have something to say, you can make submissions to Global Citizen's Contributing Writers Program by reaching out to firstname.lastname@example.org.