Language is the foundation of human identity. In all its forms—whether it’s written, spoken, drawn, or signed—it has given us access to learn about societies that date back centuries before our time. It is a way for people and societies to connect and interact.
However, languages can also form a barrier between people. They can be used as tools to create hierarchy and division within societies. How has linguistic power been so effective that it has managed to wipe out and endanger some of Africa’s oldest languages, namely Khoisan languages?
The histories of colonization and assimilation have shown how language hegemony was used as a tool to erase languages, along with their cultures and identities. The Khoisan have suffered from assimilation, land grabbing and colonization—all contributing to their language endangerment.
African language families
In order to understand the African languages as presented in our current time, it is important to know where they came from.
Africa is the cradle of humankind. Fossils of the earliest stages of human evolution, australopithecus afarensis and homo habilis (homo, meaning human), were found largely in Eastern and Southern Africa. “Lucy” was discovered in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974, and is among these skeletal fossils of early humans. As the home of human evolution, it is no surprise that four of the major language families of the world have been traced back to Africa. These language families include:
- Niger-Congo, and
These language families are made up of many ethnolinguistic groups, which each have their own identities and cultures. Through migration, trade and inter-cultural and inter-ethnic communication, the African language family trees grew in diversity.
The United Nations declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. But why are Indigenous languages so important? Simply put, language lets us communicate how we perceive our surroundings, our environment and ourselves; shapes the way we think about things and gives meaning. Language allows societies to record their own stories and histories—It gives them a voice. Therefore, the threat of language extinction is inherently a threat to identity.
The Khoisan language family is one of the language groups that originated in Africa. It has origins in East Africa, in what is now Tanzania, but has suffered through assimilation, colonization, and processes of modernization. The population and geographical area of Khoisan speakers have diminished significantly, making them an endangered language. Now Khoisan language family speakers are mostly found in Southern Africa.
Khoisan languages were first assimilated by Bantu-speakers of the Niger-Congo family in the early Common Era across the most Eastern, Central, and Southern African. Hadza and Sandawe are the only descendant ethnolinguistic groups surviving in Tanzania. Further on, between the 1650s and 1770s, Dutch settlers (Boers) expanded in the South-western Cape by stealing land from the Khoisan. After a series of battles, smallpox epidemics, and loss of land and livestock, the Khoisan had lost their economic and political independence. With that, they lost their cultural heritage and language through Dutch assimilation.
In other regions, various social and economic encounters, such as trade with non-Khoisan speaking ethnolinguistic groups is what resulted in the death of Khoisan languages.
The loss of languages is equivalent to the loss of cultures and civilizations. The entire concept of language supremacy is a characteristic of colonialism. Indigenous African languages have undergone the process of extinction, starting from the imposition of the colonizer’s language, to one ethnolinguistic group being favoured—usually from racist or colourist perceptions—to English, French or other colonial languages becoming the official national languages even after independence.
In Southern Africa, the processes of modernization and land grabbing perpetuated the marginalization of languages, threatening Khoisan languages, people, and their forms of representation. Living beside non-Khoisan speaking neighbours, they were assimilated and marginalized. Losing their rights to their language, Khoisan speakers were forced to speak the languages of more populous groups. Most Khoisan communities were not able to resist socio-political and sociolinguistic changes brought on by their neighbours, which made for systematic linguistic assimilation. With oral tradition perceived of as ‘myths’, there is no record of the extent of what is lost with these languages.
The tragedy of lost languages is largely at the hand of early archaeologists and anthropologists who failed to keep a record of languages, leaving us with information only on material culture and ethnicity. When a language is lost and not well documented, there is not much that is left behind, therefore it is impossible to re-learn and revive the language. However, there are now community-based efforts to document Khoisan languages that face extinction, using strategies including promoting language and identity pride, religion, cultural traditions and celebrations, education and technology. Although these are great efforts to revive Khoisan languages, linguistic hegemony and assimilation remain the greatest threats to Indigenous languages. Therefore, it is the people, their independence and their rights that must be protected in order to prevent the loss of languages.