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One of the last speakers of SA’s oldest language dies

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Ouma Griet, one of only four people who could speak the N/uu language in South Africa, has died.

The Northern Cape MEC for Sport, Arts and Culture, Bernice Sinxeve, conveyed her condolences to the Esau and Seekoei families following the death of Ouma Griet, as she was affectionately known.Picture: Facebook

ONE OF only four people who could speak the N/uu language in South Africa, Griet Seekoei, has died.  

The Northern Cape MEC for Sport, Arts and Culture, Bernice Sinxeve, conveyed her condolences to the Esau and Seekoei families following the death of Ouma Griet, as she was affectionately known.

According to the department’s spokesperson, Conrad Fortune, Ouma Griet was one of four people who could speak the language which is believed to be more than 25 000 years old and is spoken by the San people.

“Ouma Griet was also instrumental in fighting for the recognition, preservation, survival and promotion of the N/uu language,” Fortune said.

Together with her two elderly sisters, Hanna Koper and Katrina Esau, who live near Upington, and their brother, Simon Sauls, Ouma Griet was one of the last remaining speakers of N/uu.

Like other San languages, N/uu is a melody of clicks, often punctuated by exclamation marks when written and is considered the original language of southern Africa.

With no other fluent speakers in the world apart from this family, the language is recognised by the UN as “critically endangered”.

In an interview with the BBC, Ouma Griet’s sister, Katrina Esau, said that when they were children, they only spoke N/uu and they heard a lot of people speaking the language. “Those were good times, we loved our language but that has changed,” Esau said in the interview.

According to Sheena Shah, a linguist from the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London, who worked with the family, N/uu is the last surviving member of the !Ui branch of the Tuu language family. 

“Speakers of !Ui languages were the first people living in today’s southern Africa. They lived as hunter-gatherers before being forced into assimilation by intruding white settlers and their Nama- or Afrikaans-speaking clients.” 

Shah points out that none of the siblings used N/uu in natural conversation in their daily lives, but remember doing so as children and adolescents. Instead, they communicate in Afrikaans.

Since the late 1990s, scholars from Germany, Namibia and the US have been documenting and analysing the N/uu language and have established a sound inventory, published a grammar and also suggested orthographies. 

Ouma Griet’s sister, Katrina, affectionately known as Ouma Geelmeid, taught N/uu for over a decade to local children. She was assisted by her granddaughter, Claudia du Plessis. “Ouma Geelmeid is non-literate, but Claudia is one of the few community members who can read and write N/uu. Since 2016, David van Wyk assists Ouma Geelmeid and manages the N/uu language school, Staar na die Sterre.”

Approximately 25 to 40 children from the neighbourhood are taught N/uu words, phrases and songs three times a week for roughly two hours per day.

“From the work we did with Ouma Geelmeid’s community, we learned that these communities view language as an important marker of their identity,” Shah said.