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How Katrina Esau Is Single-Handedly Saving South Africa’s Oldest Language
N|uu is one of South Africa’s oldest languages, and it is on the verge of extinction. But Katrina Esau is on a mission to preserve the endangered culture and language of the San People: an indigenous tribe that occupied the Northern Cape Province and is known as the first hunter-gatherers in the region.
The language is believed to have 112 distinct sounds and its main characteristic is clicks. It’s a language that has been passed down to generations orally. In 2013, UNESCO estimated that there were 7 N|uu speakers left.
Classified as critically endangered by Unesco, N|uu is one of three languages known to feature a “kiss-click” produced with both lips.
“It’s the most indigenous language of southern Africa,” Matthias Brenzinger, director of the Center for African Language Diversity at the University of Capetown, told The Guardian. “Genocide is the major reason for these languages in southern Africa to be extinct now, and then forced assimilation. Farmers were taking their land so there was no subsistence for them anymore.
Esau was banned from speaking her native language during the apartheid era. In the early 1990s, as the county began to change, more than 20 N|uu speakers reportedly came together after answering a radio ad to help save the language.
Today, Esau is said to be the last N|uu speaker, and even with the long time in between since she’s spoken the language, she says she’s never forgotten.
“I didn’t learn this language; I sucked it out of my mother’s breast,” Katrina Esau said in the film Lost Tongue. “But I buried it at the back of my head.”
According to government officials, Esau teaches at a small school located at the front of her house in Rosedale, outside Upington in the Northern Cape.
The work and determination to save the language have not gone unnoticed. Esau was awarded one of South Africa’s highest honors: the Order of the Baobab to honor her efforts to preserve the language and culture.