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Text documentation of N|uu


Language N|uu, N||ng, ǂKhomani
Depositor Tom Güldemann, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich
Affiliation Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
Location South Africa
Collection ID 0089
Grant ID MDP0157
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The collection consists of about 22 hours of audio material of the last 10 known speakers of the N|uu language. About 10 hours of the material is accompanied by video recordings. The collection consists mainly of texts like folktales, personal stories, and conversations in N|uu, but includes also several elicitation sessions for vocabulary and grammatical structures, as well as Pear Stories. Additionally, the collection includes recordings of translations and re-narrations of some of the texts in Afrikaans. The collection contains also transcriptions, annotations and analyses (in Toolbox format) for about one third of the corpus, as well as a first version of a lexicon (also in Toolbox format). Metadata are provided for each session in IMDI format, for a number of other files in XML format.


Group represented

ǂKhomani San

While the number of speakers of N|uu is extremely small, these individuals form part of a much larger ethnic community (ca. 600 individuals at present, referred to officially as the “œKhomani San” community). Following eviction from their former territory, dispersal, isolation from each other, and discrimination by economically and/or politically more powerful groups (such as white employers on farms), most members of the community have lost their ancestral language along with their original way of life. It is as recently as the 1990s that these people have begun to regain a sense of community (mostly due to a spectacular land claim process that restored a portion of their ancestral land to the community).


Language information

N|uu is a highly endangered language complex in the Republic of South Africa spoken by a small number of San, the oldest indigenous population type of southern Africa. The N|uu-speaking communities were hunter-gatherers until approximately the beginning of the 1930s. Until as recently as the 1990s, N|uu (also known in the literature as œKhomani) was considered extinct, due probably to the fact that the few speakers that were still capable of speaking the language hid this fact even from their own spouses and children in order to avoid stigma in the apartheid system then in place in South Africa. When the existence of the language was discovered soon after the establishment of the “new” South Africa, this was received with considerable attention both inside and outside South Africa, because up to that point it had been assumed that no remnants of the original (San) population of the country had survived. N|uu thus has a highly symbolic value for the national heritage of the country.

The number of mother-tongue speakers has dropped from ca. 20 in the late 1990s to less than 10. From the material (historical and contemporary) available to date, at least two broad dialect areas can be discerned. Since there are individuals among the remaining speakers who represent both of these different dialect areas, there exists considerable linguistic diversity within the group.


Special characteristics

N|uu is the last South African San language and the only surviving member of the !Ui branch of the isolate Tuu language family. The N|uu language is highly endangered, having one known elderly speaker (as of 2021). This collection consists of about 22 hours of audio material from 10 speakers. The collection consists mainly of texts like folktales, personal stories, and conversations in N|uu, but also includes several elicitation sessions for obtaining vocabulary and grammatical structures.


Collection contents

The labelling system for the sessions is as follows: The initial letter N stands for the project “A text documentation of N|uu”. The following letter is a code for the (main) speaker of the session. This is followed by 6 digits indicating the date of the session in yymmdd format. Finally, a dash and a two digit number give the number of the session of the respective day with the respective speaker in chronological order. For example, the session name NE080825-01 stands for a session of the N|uu project (N) with speaker E (E), recorded on the 25.08.2008 (080825), first session with speaker E on that day (-01). This system is used to identify every session uniquely. Different individual files belonging to one session are further specified by two additional characters giving information on the particular file. Most file names are followed by an underscore character followed by a capital letter (e.g., _A). The letter gives some information about the content of the file: A stands for a natural text predominantly in N|uu, B for an elicitation session, C for a text mainly in Afrikaans, D for a picture, and E for a longer file containing several stories or topics, or a mixture of N|uu and Afrikaans, eg. a recording of a N|uu story followed by an Afrikaans retelling of the story. Some of the longer files which contain several stories are accompanied by more than one annotation (Toolbox) file. In this cases, the underscore is replaced by a lowercase letter which indicates the relative position of the annotated part on the audio (and video) file. For example, NC060710-02_E.wav stands for a wave file of the session NC060710-02_E.wav, containing several independent parts or stories (_E); NC060710-02aA.txt stands for a toolbox annotation file for the session NC060710-02, first story (a) on the corresponding audio file, mainly in N|uu (A); NC060710-02bC.txt stands for toolbox annotation file for the session NC060710-02, second story (b) on the corresponding audio file, mainly in Afrikaans (C).


Collection history

In the last few years, N|uu has been subject to linguistic investigation by the researcher, by a graduate student at Cologne University (M. Exter), and, within the NSF-funded project “Descriptive and theoretical studies of N|u”, by a team of American and Namibian linguists (C. Collins, A. Miller, L. Namaseb and B. Sands). Despite this joint effort and the highly cooperative spirit that prevails between the different groups of researchers, the language is far from being documented in any sufficient way.

The Tuu languages are widely known in the linguistic community for having sound systems that range among the most complex in the world. It is thus not surprising that a great part of the previous research enterprise has been dedicated to this and related, specialized, topics (i.e. sound system, certain morpho-syntactic structures, and lexicon). While a solid understanding of these is of course a necessary precondition for a fuller description, many areas have hardly been touched upon yet. A particularly striking gap in our current knowledge of N|uu is a discourse-based description and analysis, and this across the whole spectrum of still existing inter-speaker variation.

This project is intended to fill this major gap and ultimately lead to a documentation of N|uu to the fullest possible extent. Based on the experience made previously in collecting, transcribing and analysing N|uu texts, natural discourse data are likely to increase considerably the available material derived from other, more elicitation-based research, especially in the domains of morpho-syntax and lexicon. The primary goal of the project is thus to record and archive coherent and spontaneously produced texts in high-quality audio and video formats and to analyse them in terms of their morpho-syntactic structures, including complete interlinear glossing. This material will form a reliable basis for the later, more detailed linguistic analysis of the language.


Other information

Our project recognizes that the N|uu language, although not spoken any more by most members of the community for a generation or two, is an important asset in the community’s struggle for a sense of identity. We will therefore take into consideration that the ethnic community is very interested in maintaining and developing the language.

All materials that result from this project will be made available to the community as well as to other interested parties, like the NGO “South African San Institute”, which coordinates community projects.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Güldemann, Tom & Alena Witzlack-Makarevich. 2014. Text documentation of N|uu.  Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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