Some Try Raising Languages From the Dead

April 8, 2002 — -- Nigel Crawhall was charged with the seemingly impossible task of finding a N|u language speaker to support a land claim by the group's descendants.

After all, just months earlier the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, had tagged N|u as a dead language when it released a CD that included a 1930s-vintage recording of the native language, which is marked by popping and clicking tones.

"All of the adults in the 1940s just turned the language off," dispersed, and started speaking Afrikaans, or other African languages, said Crawhall, a sociolinguist who works with the South African San Institute, a nongovernmental organization that provides development services to native communities.

So Crawhall was doubtful when a man named Petrus Vaalbooi came forward, claiming his mother, Elsie, spoke N|u. He had heard false claims before. "It was a pretty bold claim, but she was obviously a pretty old woman," said Crawhall.

But, to his surprise, when Crawhall played the old recording for his aged listener, she was able to translate it.

That discovery prompted him to locate an additional 25 speakers over the next two years, although five of them have died since.

"During the apartheid years, their identity was stripped completely. They were reclassified as being of mixed ethnicity and so they basically ceased to exist," Crawhall said.

Now, he said, "They have their history back — a sense of identity."

Last Gasps?

With half of the world's roughly 6,000 languages at risk or dying, those at the brink rarely rebound, although they sometimes they put up a fight.

Linguists say some American Indian tribes are seeking to revive languages that mostly have slipped into history — with only recordings left behind. And Ainu speakers on the Japanese island of Hokkaido are trying to recover their language from the brink of extinction, after only eight native speakers survived in the early 1980s, according to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In southwestern England, the BBC broadcasts radio programs in Cornish, and perhaps 1,000 or more people now speak the Gaelic language whose last native speaker died in 1777, a UNESCO report said.

But the prospects for long-term survival of endangered languages are not thought by experts to be good unless they're thoroughly woven into daily life, commerce and society.

"Having bilingual signs and maybe one-hour's worth of broadcasting on the radio is not enough to maintain the language," said Douglas Whalen, president of the Endangered Language Fund at Yale University. "There can be promising signs when things aren't necessarily in real good shape."

Nevertheless, the 20 known native N|u speakers — who had been hidden for decades among the South African population, apparently nervous about speaking their native tongue — are hoping for a comeback.

"It's too far gone to be able to reverse, and I still believe that, but the community is very passionate about it," Crawhall said. "Some of the old women are teaching this language to their grandchildren, and the kids are speaking it. But we've got a time limit, because the youngest fluent speaker is 61 and the oldest is 106."

Poignant Farewell

The opportunity to study the N|u language — the last of the ancient !Ui language family — may give scientists clues on the speech of ancient humans, who emigrated from Africa.

"This language, which was frozen in the 19th century, may well have been the direct descendant of original human speech in southern Africa," Crawhall said. "Everybody thought it was gone."

"This language has actually given us insight into other languages that have been extinct … some of them for over 100 years," he added.

But three other click-based Khoisan languages on the University of Witwatersrand CD apparently have disappeared, said Anthony Traill, creator of the disc and professorial research fellow in the university's linguistics department.

"Many of the languages of South Africa that are extinct now were never recorded," Traill said. "It's just by good fortune that these languages were."

In a recorded 1938 address to delegates of the Third International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Belgium, Mukalap, an !Ora speaker, left a fitting cultural goodbye.

"Yes, I salute you … who lie beyond the sea," Mukalap said, according to Traill's translation. "I do not know you. I have not seen you with my eyes. You have not experienced me, that you may know me, that you may realize that the people in this country speak a beautiful language.

"You do not know what nation we are," Mukalap said. "Listen. Listen, just for once how they speak, so that you should not again be ignorant."