In the north of the country, the city of Upington extends to the gates of the Kalahari Desert. It is in this desert that the San, a group of indigenous peoples of southern Africa, have been hit in a corner during centuries of colonization. And it is in this city that Katrina Esau, the last person who spoke one of their original languages, Nluu, lives.
→ READ GEN. What happens when a language disappears?
Under the awning of her house, Katrina and her granddaughter Claudia welcome children from the township. After school she teaches them something nluu. Claudia asks them to repeat a few simple sentences written on a blackboard. Children pull their lips together, like a kiss. Under Katrina’s radiant gaze, they try to reproduce one of the 45 clicks in this language, which have 112 different sounds.
A language sacrifice for Africans
Katrina Esau was born in 1933. At that time, the San people were especially despised. Their language is forbidden on the farms where Katrina’s family works. “They said our language was ugly and they forbade us to speak it,” she says. So Katrina and her people bury their clicks and words in a corner of their minds and adopt Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch settlers.
In the 1990s, linguists came to Upington with nluu recordings. They are looking for the last speakers of this language who were thought to be extinct. For Katrina, it’s a shock. “I never imagined our language could disappear! Otherwise I would have taught it to my children. ” she says, her eyes filled with remorse.
Katrina is illiterate and gives herself a mission: to save the language of her ancestors. She did not pass it on to her children, never mind, she will teach it to her grandchildren! In 2004, she founded a school in front of her door. She surrounds herself with her granddaughter, Claudia, who very early showed interest in nluu and who can read and write. Since then, Katrina lives only for her dream: to be sure at her death that her language will survive her.
Linguists come regularly to meet her to document nluu. In 2013, a new team affiliated with the University of Cape Town decided to help Katrina School. For three years, Sheena Shah and Matthias Brenzinger designed a textbook with her and Claudia. “The former linguists had already done a lot of work, but it was very academic, it needed something that society could use”, explains Sheena. Little by little, they write a manuscript for this oral language. “We suggested spellings, but they always had the last word, Matthias explains. These languages belong to the community. Spelling is not for linguists, it is for them. If they do not use it, it does not matter. »
The struggle of life
For two years, the nluu class has been hit by the Covid-19 epidemic. While waiting to be able to seriously relaunch it, Claudia and Katrina published a story in nluu in 2021, The turtle and the ostrich. “Language is not just a means of communication, reminds Sheena. They reflect concepts, a way of looking at the world … And it is an important marker of cultural identity. » Without Ouma (“grandmother”, in Afrikaans) Katrina’s determination, nluu would no doubt have disappeared by the time she died. She rescues him from an announced death. “It only takes one charismatic person to bring a language back to lifeexcited Matthias. Even if the language changes, it is not important. What matters is that it is spoken and that those who speak it regard it as nluu. »
While the children confidently sing a Christian song translated into Nluu by Katrina, 11-year-old Kayleen says: “When my children and grandchildren grow up, I will speak Nluu, and I will be proud to speak our language to the world that Ouma Katrina wants. » Claudia smiles. “I’m happy. They are the future. With them, language can continue to live.”