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Dictionary of Korana (!Ora), a South African Khoesan language of the KHOE family


Language Korana
Depositor Menan du Plessis
Affiliation University of Cape Town
Location South Africa
Collection ID 0266
Grant ID SG0126
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The collection includes sound files of Korana, or !Ora, a South African Khoesan language of the KHOE family, which may be the direct descendant of the variety spoken by inhabitants of the Cape when Europeans first arrived. It was believed extinct until the recent discovery of four elderly speakers around Bloemfontein and Kimberley.

The files will be incorporated into an electronic dictionary, and ultimately integrated with a text corpus. This is part of a greater project to produce a compendium – in print and online – with historical background, grammatical information, heritage texts with parallel translations, and a dictionary.


Group represented

Four elderly speakers around Bloemfontein and Kimberley.


Language information

Korana, or !Ora, is a Khoesan language of South Africa, and belongs to the fairly extensive family of KHOE languages. It is related to the South African Richtersveld variety of Nama, as well as the varieties of Namibian Khoekhoe spoken by the Nama, Damara and Hai?om; and it is also related to Kalahari varieties of KHOE such as Naro and Khwe of the western groups, and Shua of the eastern groups. It is the closest relative and possibly the direct lineal descendant of the variety spoken by the original Khoi-Khoi inhabitants of the Cape: it seems plausible that a connection may be made between the ‘Goringaiquas’ who appear in Cape records of the late 17th century – and the !Kuri??ais or Hoogstanders (‘High Standers’) of later accounts describing the Korana clans.


Collection history

Until very recently the language of the Korana was thought to be extinct. While speakers in the mid-19th century were often bilingual in Korana and Dutch or Cape Dutch, by the early 20th century the language was already giving way to Afrikaans. The clans themselves gradually lost political cohesion – or developed new kinds of polities – under the pressures of settler encroachment, colonial administration, missionary intervention and apartheid. Nevertheless, Dr Mike Besten and co-workers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of the Free State have over the past few years discovered a few isolated elderly people who retain varying degrees of fluency in the Korana language. Following preliminary interviews it has become apparent that of the four speakers now known, there are two who have a reasonably reliable knowledge of the language, and are willing to work with linguists. By sheer fortune, the dialect spoken by these two speakers appears to be the easternmost variety described in earlier studies. As such it reflects the most characteristic phonetic, lexical and morpho-syntactic features of the Korana language.

Prior to its believed extinction, the language was fairly well documented in print. An early vocabulary was compiled by the missionary, Wuras (1858), while a two-way Korana-German vocabulary was published (1930) by Meinhof. As far as sound recordings are concerned, the language was hardly ever documented in any audio format. The only known recordings consist of a short address by ‘Mukalap’, and the same speaker’s enunciation of a brief set of words to illustrate the four Korana clicks with their range of possible ‘accompaniments’.

The unexpected recent finding of the elderly Korana speakers provides us with a last opportunity to make sound recordings for posterity. Because the language invokes so many historical resonances, such recordings will constitute a cultural treasure of profound significance for the South African nation. It is fair to say that Korana – as the language is named in English – is on the point of flickering out, and is currently the most gravely endangered indigenous language of South Africa.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Du Plessis, Menan. 2014. Dictionary of Korana (!Ora), a South African Khoesan language of the KHOE family. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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