Brief historical background
In my preparation of catechism material in Naro, one is again impressed by how unique and descriptive the language can be. Naro is a “Khóè language” and not a “San language”. It is pronounced “khwê”. “Khóè” means “human”. It can also be written as “khoi”. When we speak of the “Khóè-khóè”, we mean “man-man”. The word “Khoesan” is then a word that gather the “Khóè people” and the “San people” under one umbrella, referring to the common sucking sounds or click sounds in their languages.
The “Khóè people” are those with whom Jan van Riebeeck had dealt with in the Cape, but also the “San people”. The “Khóè people” were largely cattle farmers, but they also hunted, while the “San people” were mainly hunters who roamed all over Southern Africa and lived on veld food and hunting.
It was as Jan van Riebeeck and the early inhabitants of the Cape knew them. Both of these language families use “clicking sounds” or “sucking sounds” to communicate. The Xhosa and Zulu borrowed their clicking sounds from the Khoesan people, just as many borrow words of Afrikaans and English crept into their language. Originally, Zulu and Xhosa, like all other Bantu languages, had no sucking or clicking sounds in their language.
Intermarriage, when the Nguni people arrived from the North in Southern Africa, brought the sucking sounds into their languages.
My Zulu lecturer in Potchefstroom explained to me that when the Khoesan people stole cattle from the Xhosas or Zulus in the past for food, they were pursued and literally hunted. Where the Xhosas or the Zulus then came upon their wives and children, they were captured. This is how intermarriage took place and the clickiing sounds entered the Zulu and Xhosa languages, because the Khoesan women could not speak or understand Zulu or Xhosa. Old missionary dictionaries confirm this. Except of course for Xhosa and Zulu, Southern Sotho and Tsonga have only one sucking sound in their languages. The further one has moved east from the Cape Colony, the less impact the clicking sounds had on the African languages, which tells one that the Khoesan languages were more prevalent in the Cape Colony at that time. If you listen to Xhosa and Zulu, you occasionally hear a clicking sound (sucking sound) in their languages, while you can hardly make a sentence in the Khoesan languages without sucking sounds. Xhosa, which was the closest to the Khoesan languages, therefore has more sucking sounds in its language than Zulu which was further away, but it is only a drop in the ocean compared to the clicking sounds in the Khoesan languages.
A language like !Xóõ from Bere, 80% of all its words consist of clicking sounds. Only 20% of words do not have clicking sounds. Another interesting thing is, only 1% of all the languages in the world (over 6000) use clicking sounds, and the 1% are only in southern Africa.
The Khoesan languages themselves
All the Khóè people (Khóè) are relatives of the old Hottentots in the Cape.
Their languages differ from each other as the Germanic languages differ from each other such as, German, Afrikaans, Dutch, Belgian and English, or as the Roman languages differ from each other such as, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. They descended from the same original language and later broke up into different related languages. Similarly, the African languages are related and use the same grammatical principles, but centuries or thousands of years ago there must have been an ancient language that scientists call Urbantu. From this original language arose languages that are spoken everywhere in Africa today, even though they do not understand each other, just as a German cannot understand Afrikaans and vice versa, it is clear that there was a common origin.
As an example, meat is called “fleisch” in German and the English have “flesh” in their language. Almost every African language in Africa calls meat “nama” or “inyama” or “onyama”. There are words that again radically differ from each other, but they all share more or less the same grammatical principles. Thus a Zulu cannot understand Venda at all and a Venda cannot understand Shona or Herero at all and vice versa, yet they share the same grammatical principles. Among the Khòé lanuages you will find Nama, !Ora, //ani, Buga, /Gana, Naro, //Ghana, /Gui, #Haba, Shua, Deti, Cara, Cirecire, /Haise, Danisi (or Danasani), Tshoa, Cua, Ciri-Cire and Kua. These are all languages and not dialects of each other. If we wanted to call it dialects, then we must call Afrikaans a dialect of English or German.
The San languages in turn differ from the Khóè languages like Greek from Afrikaans. The difference is actually even greater because there are many similarities between Afrikaans and Greek, but there are very few similarities between the Khoe and the San languages apart from the clicking sounds.
Although all these languages use sucking sounds or clicking sounds, they differ radically from each other. These sucking sounds are actually just consonants like r, p, s, t and so on that are added to the normal alphabet.
English and Russian also share many alphabet letters, but that does not mean they can understand each other.
Under the San languages you then find the northern San languages and the southern San languages. They again differ from each other like English from French. The northern San groups are the #Hua and the Ju grouping. The Ju group consists of Ju/’hoan, !Xun and Kg’au//ei. The Ju/’hoan is the language spoken in “The gods must be crazy” (the film by Jamie Uys). The Southern groups are the Taa and the !Kui grouping. The Taa grouping includes the !Xóõ of Bere. The !Kui grouping includes the /Xam, //Xegui Tshasi and the #Khomani grouping.
Unfortunately, the /Xam language became extinct in 1915. The #Khomani is on the verge of extinction. If I am correct, there is only one native speaker left. This is the last San language in South Africa. Note in South Africa and not southern Africa. In southern Africa there are still many San speakers who have some San language as their mother tongue. If we talk about the last San language, we are talking about the previous dispensation, because a number of years ago a San- and Khoe group came to settle in South Africa who came from the Northern parts of Namibia, who did military service for the former South African army. They were settled here by the previous South African government because their lives were no longer safe where they were. In southern Africa there are still many San language speakers who have some or other San language as their mother tongue. Later more about the San languages and specifically the !Xóõ (Qgõo) they speak at Bere and further south.
In D’kar, surrounding farms and actually in the entire Gantsi district, the medium of instruction among the Bushmen is mostly Naro. The Ju/’hoan and the !Xóõ speakers will speak Naro when they come in contact with the Naros. If they can not speak Naro, they talk to each other Tswana. Ju/’hoan and !Xóõ are both San languages, while Naro is a Khóè language.
Many Naros can speak Ju/’hoan, but very rarely do you hear a Naro talking !Xóõ. I only came across two people who could speak both. One of our church council members, Xgaiga, who is fluent in Naro and Ju/’hoan, tells me about his experience once in a bus on the way to Gaborone. He is very jovial and talkative and loves making conversation. He happened to sit from Bere between a group !Xóõ speaking bushman, all the way to Gaborone. Sitting between them, he couldn’t understand a single word they said. If it was the Ju/’hoan language (the Bushman language of “the gods must be crazy”), he could have had a part in their conversations, but because !Xóõ differs so radically from the Ju/’hoan langauge he could not understand anything, even though they are both San languages. It was for him one of his most boring moments he ever experienced.
Naro like most of the Khóè languages has 28 click sound combinations, Ju/’hoan has 48 and 10 vowels, and !Xóõ 83 and 31 vowels according to the researchers of Wikipedia. Together with the click sounds (sucking sounds), the !Xóõ language has 164 consonants making it the language with the most consonants in the world. Although the Ju/’hoan has more clicking sounds than Naro, many people including the Naros consider Ju/’hoan a very easy language. The word order is in many cases the same as English or Afrikaans. What makes Naro so difficult according to many is the word order. A simple example: “Ncãar tc’ẽe a máá ncãa tsi xg’ae cgoa me ta tc’ẽea.” It literally means: Did I think and say did you meet with him thought. Which means: I thought you met him. The underlined is the click sounds in the sentence.
Something else from the Khóè languages that makes it very rich compared to the San languages. The Khóè languages and then now specifically Naro see everything in terms of masculine, feminine and neutral. One thing can be a man, a woman or a thing. In the San languages, all pronouns are basically indicated as masculine. In other words, when you talk about a woman, you would say, “he walked” or “he did this or that” in the San lanuages, but not in the Khóè languages. It’s like the Bantu languages, he and she is the same word. There is no distinction regarding the pronoun, while in Naro one has to describe in detail who it is.
• There are two words for you:
- You (as a man) are: Tsaa
- You (as a woman) are: Saa
• There are words for him and his:
- Hy: gabá
- Sy: gasá
• There are six words for “you”:
- You (two women): Gasao
- You (two men): Gatsao
- You (two as man and woman): Gakhao
- You (men): Gaxao
- You (women): Gasao
- You (men and women): Gatu
• There are six words for “them”:
- They (two women): Gasara
- They (two men): Gatsara
- They (two as man and woman): Gakhara
- They (women only): Gazi
- They (men only): Gaxu
- They (men and women): Gane
• There are six words for “us”:
- We (two men): Gatsam
- We (two women): Gasam
- We (two as man and woman): Gakham
- We (men only): Gaxae
- We (women only): Gase
- We (men and women): Gatá
Another unique phenomenon in the Khóè languages and then in this case Naro, is their exclusive use of the pronoun. As soon as you put a “si” in front of the pronoun then you exclude the person you are talking to. If I talk to you and say, for example, “we are going home”, and I use the word “sitsam”, then I exclude you (as a man). You are then not part of the “we”. If you are a woman and I am a man, it will be “sikham”. In other words you do not go along then. So someone else is part of the “we” and not you.
In English when you say, “we are going home”, you must first find out whether you are part of the “we” or not. In Afrikaans and in English too, if you do not explain it, it can lead to many misunderstandings. I can still remember when I was at university, I told Miriam (my wife) one day that, we are going to have a barbecue one afternoon. In Afrikaans we have only one “we”. The result is Miriam thought she was part of the “we”. Later, when she was ready to go to the event, she realized to her disappointment that it was a braai exclusive for men. If we had spoken in Naro, she would have immediately heard that she was not part of the “we”, and this would have prevented the disappointment and misunderstanding in our communication.
One night in D’kar I overheard people talking in the dark. I then asked them, “Who are you and where are you going?” “We’re on our way home,” said one respondent. From the word they used for “we”, I could hear there are only women and they are more than two, there are no men with them, because otherwise they would have used a word that included men, and I was excluded from the word “we” because they used the exclusive form of the word “we”: “sise”. If there were men with them they would have used the word “sitá”, and if they had included me they would have used the word “gatá”.
This is of course a huge challenge, especially when it comes to translating the Bible and Bible studies. If the Lord Jesus is with his disciples and refers to “us” or “them” or “you”, you must always ask yourself the question which word is in question and whether there are men and women or only men or only women and how many were involved. Therefore, the translation process is very challenging and interesting.
This is just a short summary of something about the Khóè (Khoi) and the San languages. How their languages developed through the ages is a mystery, but it remains unique languages and the Lord has preserved it through ages, and it is a miracle, especially for the fact that He is also worshiped today in these languages. Of course, He is the great Architect of all these languages. This contrasts Genesis 11 with Acts 2. In Genesis 11, man wanted to be one, one language, one building, one economy, and so on. They sought their unity in themselves and their own pride and importance until the Lord Himself brought confusion amongst them, for true unity is only possible in Christ, who then bring us to Acts 2 where different people and different languages with the descent of the Holy Spirit could be one in and through Him, Jesus Christ. Throughout the ages, the Lord has maintained the “language confusion” so that all languages and nations can seek their unity in the One True God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and praise and glorify Him in spite of the variety. This is the true unity. In John 17:11 the Lord Jesus prays: “. . . that they may be one, as we are.”
We once again ask for your intercession that the Lord will open doors for us to address the hearts of these people of the Kalahari in and through their unique languages.
Greetings and blessings, your brother in Christ.
Hendrik du Plessis.