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Ju|'hoan and ǂX'ao-||'aen documentation in Namibia: overcoming obstacles to community-based language documentation


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This paper describes the past, present, and future of a remotely-sited, community-based language documentation project near the border between Namibia and Botswana, where the Ju|’hoan (ktz) and ǂX’ao-||’aen (aue) languages are spoken. The paper presents an example of reignited linguistic pride within a community which speaks an indigenous language in danger of being supplanted by more dominant ones
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Language Documentation
and Description
ISSN 1740-6234
This article appears in: Language Documentation and Description, vol
11. Editors: Stuart McGill & Peter K. Austin
Ju|’hoan and X’ao- ’aen documentation
in Namibia: overcoming obstacles to
community-based language
Cite this article: Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett, Taesun Moon (2012).
Ju|’hoan and X’ao- ’aen documentation in Namibia: overcoming
obstacles to community-based language documentation. In Stuart
McGill & Peter K. Austin (eds) Language Documentation and
Description, vol 11. London: SOAS. pp. 72-89
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Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 2012. Ju|’hoan and X’ao-’aen documentation in
Namibia: overcoming obstacles to community-based language documentation. In Peter K. Austin &
Stuart McGill (eds.) Language Documentation and Description, Vol 11, 72-89. London: SOAS.
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia:
overcoming obstacles to community-based language
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett, & Taesun Moon
1. Introduction1
This paper describes the past, present, and future of a remotely-sited,
community-based language documentation project near the border between
Namibia and Botswana, where the Ju|’hoan (ktz) and X’ao-’aen (aue)
languages are spoken. The paper presents an example of reignited linguistic
pride within a community which speaks an indigenous language in danger of
being supplanted by more dominant ones.
We review the various obstacles encountered and the ways in which the
project managed to overcome them, paving the way for future new
developments. Some of the issues and solutions are culture-specific, while
others are widely applicable to similar projects. In Section 3 we outline some
of the technical problems faced and solved in the course of the first decade of
the Ju|’hoan Transcription Group (JTG), while in Section 4 other project
problems are discussed. These include practical ones such as limitations in the
existing Namibian school system, as well as physical problems of the remote
location, and social and political problems stemming largely from the attempt
to foster a specialized project within a still fiercely egalitarian, recently
hunter-gatherer society, which puts high priority on making community-wide
consensual decisions. The future of the Ju|’hoan Transcription Project will
involve finding solutions to these problems as well as to extending
documentation to X’ao-’aen, which is the topic of Section 5. There we
1 The authors would like to thank Victoria Goodman for her help with preparation of
this paper. The work of the Village Schools Project and the Ju|’hoan Transcription
Group has been supported in the past by, among others, a Field Trip Grant (2008–
2009) from ELDP and grants from the US National Science Foundation, the US
National Endowment for the Humanities, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research, the Firebird Foundation, the Jutta Vogel Foundation, the
Kalahari Peoples Fund, the Redbush Tea Co. of London, and anonymous donors. The
ongoing documentation of Ju|’hoan and of X’ao-’aen is funded by a Major
Documentation Project grant from ELDP (2011–2014). The writing of this paper was
supported by the US National Science Foundation (grant no. BCS-1122932) but it does
not necessarily reflect their views.
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 73
elaborate on how we can expect a number of new obstacles, and how the
future documentation will benefit from the progress and experience gained
from the Ju|’hoan project’s past.
2. The sociolinguistic contexts of Ju|’hoan and
2.1 Ju|’hoan
Ju|’hoan is the first language of a group of former foragers of the Nyae Nyae
region in north-east Namibia and adjacent north-west Botswana, but its future
is threatened. Current estimates of speakers range downward from 33,600
(Lewis 2009) to 11,000 (Biesele & Hitchcock 2011: 5), but even this latter
estimate may be high. At the project site, Tsumkwe (in Nyae Nyae, Namibia),
which is home to some 2,000 Ju|’hoan San, Ju|’hoan is still learned at home
and precariously holds national educational language status to Grade 4 via the
Village Schools Project (VSP) begun by Biesele and Patrick Dickens in 1990.
Ju|’hoan youth in other parts of Namibia are losing the language due to
economic and political circumstances, and although it persists in religious
healing, language attrition is clearly underway. In Botswana, with perhaps
5,000 speakers, Ju|’hoan is even less available to children because schooling
is exclusively Setswana-medium and English-medium. Neighbouring
languages and dialects include (Khoisan): Xun, Hai||om, Khoe, X’ao-’aen,
Naro (see Güldemann & Vossen 2000 for a general introduction to Khoisan
linguistics) and (Bantu): Otjiherero, SeYei, SeKwanyama.
In contact situations Ju|’hoan speakers switch to Afrikaans, English, or
Setswana. Nevertheless, the language has unparalleled ongoing potential for
comprehensive documentation in Nyae Nyae, where the Ju|’hoan have
avoided dispossession and fragmentation by creating an internationally
recognized land conservancy. Ju|’hoan culture in Nyae Nyae is the most
extensively studied, via long-term projects such as the Harvard Kalahari
Research Project (HKRP), which includes Biesele. Additionally, Ju|’hoan,
especially in Nyae Nyae as enabled by HKRP, VSP, and a new Namibian
commitment to minority radio, is now experiencing community-based
revitalisation. This project in digital documentation of Ju|’hoan language and
culture is thus the culmination of 41 years of research, audio/video
documentation, and language activism by anthropologist Biesele, her team of
Ju|’hoan trainees, and linguistic consultants. It is based on community
education in Ju|’hoan literacy, begun over 20 years ago by Biesele and the late
linguist Patrick Dickens, who provided the orthography, dictionary, grammar
(Dickens 1991, 1994, 2005), and curriculum materials for the Village Schools
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 74
Project and its development, the Ju|’hoan Transcription Group, both of which
are in operation today.
X’ao-’aen is spoken by about 2,000 San in the Omaheke province of
Namibia and by 2,000 San in the Ghanzi district in neighbouring Botswana
(Figure 1, see also Lewis 2009). X’ao-’aen is a Naro exonym meaning
‘northern people’. Community members generally define themselves as
Ju|’hoansi or ‘true people’, although the situation is complex (see section 5.2).
Linguists consider Ju a language-complex as there are no clear boundaries
between the different dialects. The northernmost varieties are found in
Angola. X’ao-’aen is the southernmost variety, and thus its documentation
is of utmost value to our knowledge of the Ju language-complex. The
geographical position of X’ao-’aen, and the borders it shares with other
neighbouring non-Ju San communities, lends itself to the study of broader
Khoisan language typology. There are points of contact between X’ao-’aen
and both Taa and Khoe languages; thus, X’ao-’aen may have very different
loan patterns from other south-eastern Ju varieties like Ju|’hoan.
Figure 1: Distribution of
’aen communities (Map by Simon Argus)
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 75
2.3 Socio-historical comparison
While the Ju|’hoan are said to be the most documented indigenous people in
anthropology (Biesele & Hitchcock 2011: vii) and the Ju|’hoan grammar,
dictionary, literacy primers and book of folklore are all accomplishments in
which the Ju|’hoan people take great pride, for their X’ao-’aen relatives
some 200km south of Tsumkwe in Nyae Nyae it is quite a different story.
Under former South West Africa, the Ju|’hoan of Nyae Nyae were granted
the right to live on a kind of native reserve, or ‘homeland’, called
Bushmanland. Despite the fact that many of these San were also forced to
vacate their n!ore2 and that the new homelands were a far cry from the
freedom and resources they had previously enjoyed, it was still a better fate
than that which awaited the Ju|’hoan of the Omaheke. Forced to work on
Afrikaner and Herero farms, many Omaheke Ju|’hoan communities were torn
apart and became completely isolated. As whole families would often reside
on a single farm, and as life on the farms often enforced strict labour regimes,
groups found it more and more difficult to congregate and participate in
traditional customs and rituals. Whilst in Nyae Nyae activists and academics
strived to achieve a ‘mixed economy’ (Biesele & Hitchcock 2011), to which
the JTG has significantly contributed, the Omaheke Ju|’hoan have been made
entirely dependent on a local economy in which they play the role of the
lowest underdog. Some language consultants are embarrassed to talk about
their culture, and many are unable to give accounts of life around the camp
fire or retell the stories their grandparents told as they will have been working
on farms. Much of their traditional way of life has been drastically distorted in
wars, corruption and by the people being uprooted from their n!ore.
3. The Project’s Past: overcoming transcription problems through
the use of ELAN
Ju|’hoan language documentation has grown from the grass-roots of the Nyae
Nyae community. It arose from an intricate situation of community politics
and development around the time of Namibian Independence (1990) that
made very obvious an educational crisis among Ju|’hoan youth. Community
leaders called on NGOs and donors, anthropologists and linguists in an effort
to make sure young Ju|’hoan were not excluded from the educational
processes that would be necessary for their future in independent Namibia.
2 A powerful term for all Ju|’hoan which defines the land where they were born and
over which they had long acted as stewards (Biesele & Hitchcock 2011: 55ff).
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 76
Their Village Schools Project (VSP) was a response to the crisis: it continues
today to link the remote Nyae Nyae Ju|’hoan community to the national
educational system in Namibia.
Linguists who paved the way towards the Village Schools Project included
Ferdinand Weich, Ernst Westphal, Tony Traill, and Rainer Vossen. Patrick
Dickens brought it into being. Linguists who have helped the Ju|’hoan
Transcription Project (JTP) grow from the VSP include Amanda Miller,
Wilfrid Haacke, Levi Namaseb, Tom Güldemann, Bonny Sands, Sheena
Shah, Tony Woodbury, and Taesun Moon. The project has been careful to
resist folklorisation and literate edits, hewing as closely as possible at all times
to the actual utterances of the 40-year collection of recorded folklore, healing
texts, oral history, songs, and dreams. It grew during the 1980s to include
political meeting speeches and other documents of contemporary history, and
now the JTG is the ‘go-to’ group for documenting political events in Nyae
The transcription project started in 2002 with a donation of four laptops
and hiring Catherine Collett as technical assistant to train native speakers of
Ju|’hoan on-site in Tsumkwe, Namibia, in the basic computer skills necessary
to transcribe and translate the extensive audio recordings collected between
1970 and 2002 by Biesele. For the first five years, the transcribers used
Microsoft Word and a playback program called ExpressScribe to transcribe
the recordings and provide line-by-line translations into English.
Unfortunately, there were several problems with this set-up, whose
frustrations provided the motivation to experiment with and transition to a
different program. Word is of course a proprietary program not intended for
transcription of the type we were wishing to carry out; Word files are also not
preservable. ExpressScribe also had a few minor issues: it could only replay
predefined lengths of time, such as the last 10 seconds, and it was often
difficult to locate a previous utterance and play it back. Additionally the
program made copies of the sound files into a temporary directory, and if a
user failed to close a sound file after transcription, the copy remained in the
temporary directory, eventually filling up the laptop’s hard drive space (which
was how the problem was discovered). Having to use and switch between two
programs was also complicated and prone to error.
At the beginning of 2008 the transcribers switched to using ELAN3, after
less than two days of training. We found there were several benefits of using a
dedicated transcribing tool:
3 See, accessed 2012-11-02
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 77
ELAN forces greater fidelity to what is being said because of time
alignment with the audio signal. When they were transcribing with Word the
transcribers ‘edited’ the transcriptions to read more like written texts. Once a
raw transcription was complete in Word and ExpressScribe, the transcribers
would go over the transcription and translation – sometimes without listening
to the audio – and edit the texts to ‘correct’ perceived grammatical mistakes,
spoken infelicities, disruptions in narrative and other textual issues to create
‘better’ texts.
ELAN allows for multiple speakers in the transcriptions, each in a separate
tier, enabling easy representation of utterance overlaps.
ELAN does not have elaborate font and paragraph settings. When using
Word the transcribers always applied different font properties to titles,
headers, transcriptions and translations, which consumed time and did not add
to the quality of the transcriptions.
We also found that transcription speed greatly increased. Our fastest
transcriber, for example, by 2009 could process a 10 minute sound file in two
days or less, when the same sound file would have taken him about a week
using Word. Ju|’hoan Folktales, the first book based on transcriptions made
with ELAN, was published in June 2009 (Biesele et al. 2009), less than a year
after use of ELAN began. The book is a collection of 14 folktales selected
from among Biesele’s recordings and transcribed over an intense, one-month
session in the summer of 2008.
Nonetheless, in spite of these successes, some technological challenges
remain, one having to do with ELAN and the other more general. The full
mechanism required for ELAN is still complicated to some degree, such as
defining tiers and dependencies, adding tiers, etc. These aspects of ELAN
have proved far more difficult to teach than transcription. Nonetheless,
occasions when customizing tiers is necessary are rare and do not pose a
challenge to the maintainability of the project, even without the presence of an
external supervisor. The more serious, perhaps crippling, problem is the
difficulty of training the transcribers in file handling and file management. In
spite of nearly seven years of computer training for some of the transcribers,
files still get lost, are transcribed two or more times by different people, or are
associated with incorrect sound files when there is no external supervisor to
manage the files. This problem is not limited only to the less computer-literate
transcribers. It is a problem that has been and still is observed for all the
transcribers. The only solution for the moment is that the external supervisor
manages all workflow processes apart from the transcription proper. In the
future, we hope to be able to surmount this problem.
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 78
In 2011 we began using Dropbox,4 a secure and reliable way to store and
transfer files over an internet connection, so that documents and sound files
can be exchanged between the United States, Germany and Namibia almost
Training native speakers of Ju|’hoan how to use the transcription software
and operational details associated with digital transcription serve the long-
term goal of preserving and disseminating this data. Database and
dissemination activities form part of our ongoing plans to make the contents
of the collection accessible and searchable on websites and online archives.
The digitization of more than 1100 files of Ju|’hoan sound, transcriptions, and
other linguistic materials was completed in 2010 by the Liberal Arts
Instructional Technology Service of the University of Texas, enabling the
deposit, in early 2011, of an extensive collection of materials with the
Endangered Languages Archives (ELAR) at the School of Oriental and
African Studies. In June 2012 this archive became accessible according to our
specified access protocols, is detailed in a metadata spreadsheet and is able to
be continuously updated. 5
4. The Present: Problems addressed thus far with the Ju|’hoan
Transcription Group
4.1 Practical
Perhaps the greatest practical problem facing this project over the years has
been the technical one of transforming Biesele’s diverse analogue collection
of Ju|’hoan audio materials into usable digital form. In order to include
Ju|’hoan people’s expertise in their own language in the transcriptions and
translations, the project had to face a problematic educational situation in both
Botswana and Namibia. In both countries, access to schooling has been very
minimal in the areas inhabited by the Ju|’hoan. In Namibia up to the time of
Independence all schooling was Afrikaans-medium. In order to get started, the
project had first to start an alternative school project, the Nyae Nyae Village
Schools Project (VSP), to teach Ju|’hoan students firstly how to read and write
their own language, and then how to use that literate skill as a bridge to
English. With the late linguist Patrick Dickens, Biesele and others started the
5 See, accessed 2012-11-02
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 79
VSP in 1990, creating linguistic and curricular materials that later supported
the creation of the Ju|’hoan Transcription Group (JTG). Most of the current
JTG transcribers were originally pupils and teachers in the VSP, which is still
ongoing today, having become part of the national educational system of
Other practical problems were legion in this remote area of north-western
Namibia. They ranged from the lack of basic civic infrastructure such as
roads, public transport, clean water and sanitation, to challenges such as lack
of housing, electricity, health services, and the extreme basic poverty of the
population. Over the years the project moved from solar-powered laptops to
generator power, but to do so it had to raise funds to build a free-standing
structure associated with a small library in Tsumkwe, the administrative
centre of Nyae Nyae. Finally being able to go indoors after many years of
combating very high and very low temperatures, wind, blowing sand, gnawing
rodents, and unpredictable battery life has greatly increased the efficiency of
the project.
4.2 Social and political
The egalitarian ethos of the San people has provided both strengths and
challenges to the transcription project, some of them completely unanticipated
at its start. Although the work has benefited from the collaborative spirit of
the transcribers, who discuss the work mutually and help each other at every
opportunity, others in the Ju|’hoan community have sometimes been jealous
that they have not had the employment opportunities enjoyed by the JTG
members. A large part of the work of the project has been to make sure that
the Ju|’hoan people’s organization, now called the Nyae Nyae Conservancy,
continues to feel a sense of community ownership and pride in the project. It
has also been very important to extend training opportunities to younger
Ju|’hoan. We are happy to report that the JTG members themselves came up
with the idea for, and structure of, a youth training project. This project began
in 2009 and continues today.
It has also been very important that the project use the consensual or
group-decision-making processes common in the wider Ju|’hoan society. In
general, Ju|’hoan people are greatly suspicious of anyone who tries to self-
aggrandise or to stand out from others. Individual leadership is often trumped,
for them, by more judicious ‘leadership by committee’ processes. At the same
time, this egalitarian ethos has made it hard for individuals to take on specific
roles and positions of authority over others, sometimes necessary in the life of
such a project. All in all, however, the JTG has worked well together to solve
these socio-political issues in the interest of cultural documentation, which is
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 80
becoming a more and more important focus for indigenous groups such as the
During the months of June to August 2010, a group of six transcribers
working at the Norwegian-funded Captain Kxao Kxami Community Learning
and Development Centre (CLDC) in Tsumkwe, Namibia, completed the
transcription of seventy-eight audio files. These files included recordings of
the Xamsa political meetings involving discussion of unlawful Herero
settlement of the area, as well as several traditional healing narratives; they
are being compiled for a new book intended for cultural preservation and
language education. Fifty-one of these seventy-eight audio files were
recordings of political meetings held in the Tsumkwe area between 26th June
and 27th July 2010, and focused on the most recent illegal Herero invasion
which began in the latter months of 2009. Over six hours of audio recordings
were captured from these meetings and their translations are being used to
assist the Ju|’hoan of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in their legal battle with the
Hereros and the Namibian government over land rights issues. Additionally,
the summer of 2010 saw an increase in Ju|’hoan trainees who were willing to
come in during the afternoons and study language skills and basic computing
from the transcribers. Thirteen trainees ranging in age from late teens to men
in their fifties came in to learn the basic components of both reading and
writing in Ju|’hoan and the ELAN program which is used to transcribe their
5. The Future: Extending documentation to
5.1 Overview of
Most literature on south-eastern Ju varieties (Snyman 1975a, b; Köhler 1971)
and the Ju|’hoan Dictionary (Dickens 1994) and Concise Grammar of Ju|’hoan
(Dickens 2005) were compiled using the dialect in Tsumkwe (Nyae Nyae).
Previous work on the X’ao-’aen variety is limited and offers two rather
contradictory conclusions. Snyman (1975a, b) concluded that X'ao-'aen is
similar to Ju|’hoan of Tsumkwe, although his recordings may have included
lexical data from Nyae Nyae Ju|’hoan. Following a later areal study, however,
Snyman (1997) concluded that Ju|’hoan in Tsumkwe and X'ao-'aen in
Epukiro form two distinct dialect clusters, a view shared by many Khoisanists
today. Other studies also point to greater divergence between the two lects:
Bleek (1927, 1929) classified X'ao-'aen separately, as did König & Heine
(2008). Furthermore, Bleek (1927) noted that the relations between the two
groups had ‘always’ been quite hostile, which contributed to the fact that,
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 81
according to her, ‘there is a great difference in their speech. The two tribes
cannot understand each other at all’. This view was further reinforced by
Biesele’s experience with the Nyae Nyae Ju|’hoan, who in the 1970s protested
that they would dance with anyone except the X’ao-’aen. This hostility may
have changed in intervening years, but the difference in lects may well persist,
as Hasselbring notes:
it took a few weeks to a few months before they [the Omaheke
Ju|’hoan] could understand the language spoken there [in Nyae
Nyae]. They said it was very different from their own language
(2000: 78).
In most recent classifications, both Ju|’hoan and X’ao-’aen (with the
Dikundu variety) are part of the south-eastern branch of Ju, but in practically
all recent publications researchers are forced to acknowledge that only scarce
data exists for the X’ao-’aen lect.
Suzman (2000: 3) argues that the reason for the comparatively small
amount of research undergone with the Omaheke San is perhaps because early
ethnographers considered them ‘less pure’. In recent times, the Omaheke San
have attracted more attention from anthropologists and linguists. Suzman
(2000) and Sylvain (1999, 2002, 2006) have documented the transition
amongst the different Omaheke San groups as they struggle to come to terms
with their new existence in a modern and independent Namibian society,
particularly in Gobabis, the district capital, an Afrikaans-speaking and
reputedly conservative town. The same kind of documentation from a (socio-)
linguistic point of view, however, is completely lacking. As a result, not only
has the academic community been missing out on unique developments in the
culture of the Omaheke San, but the general pursuit of ‘pure’ San culture has
incurred more tangible consequences for speakers of the X’ao-’aen variety.
Subsequently, the gradual promotion of the Nyae Nyae Ju|’hoan has provoked
language shift to such an extent that some consultants refuse to make
recording sessions without having to hand a copy of the Nyae Nyae-based
Ju|’hoan dictionary to which they can refer. Furthermore, the regional
representative for the Omaheke San made it quite clear during an elicitation
session that he believed the Omaheke Ju|’hoan should all speak like Nyae
Despite the best intentions and a detailed plan of our goals, it is clear that
the documentation of X’ao-’aen presents many new challenges. Addressing
some of these will draw upon the experience and foundations already firmly
in place from the ‘older sister’ project in Nyae Nyae. Depending on the needs
and desires of the community, and the possible convergence of the two lects
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 82
under investigation, the project has a timely opportunity to modify the
Ju|’hoan dictionary, currently being re-edited, to include new lexical material
reflecting a greater range of dialects and speakers. Furthermore, literacy
primers which have been successful in Nyae Nyae can be adapted for the
X’ao-’aen variety, and the expansion of community-based programs such
as the Ju|’hoan Transcription Group can attempt to sustain the overall
linguistic diversity of the south-eastern group of Ju dialects in eastern
Namibia. However, there are also a number of issues which will have to be
addressed. These include identifying the X’ao-’aen ‘community’, and two
topics relevant to corpus structure: the role of elders and the documentation of
traditional knowledge.
5.2 Identifying
’aen speakers
No project is without unforeseeable problems. Nevertheless, we are able to
foresee a certain number of inevitable issues, both in the context of our project
and in documentation projects more generally. These issues include: dealing
with communities that have been isolated and scattered across a wider area,
difficulties identifying speakers of a certain language due to overlapping
ethnonyms, conflicting endonyms and exonyms, and code switching.
The problem of identifying speakers of what is known as X'ao-'aen is
mainly due to the fact that many groups strongly self-identify as Ju|’hoan, and
argue just as strongly that other groups do not have the right to such a title.
Some groups, however, are quite aware of exonyms used to identify them, and
some are aware of ethnic differences, even when language varieties are very
similar. This raises an interesting point regarding how the San groups perceive
their language and differences in local languages, and just how strongly the
San identify with their language. This must be reflected as sensitively as
possible in any attempt at dialect classification, as identity and language, at
least the cases of the Ju|’hoan and the !Xoon (who speak a Taa language), are
tightly interwoven with the notion of purity or being ‘true’. Thus a possible
result of this project could be that the language community decides it would
rather not be defined as X'ao-'aen, as this is not how they self-identify. An
ethnographically more sensitive nomenclature might also install a greater
sense of pride in their language variety.
5.2.1 Where is the ‘community’?
The term X’ao-’aen has a variety of possible meanings. X’ao-’aen is a
Naro exonym meaning ‘people of the north’, and so in most areas the term
refers to the people from north of the Omaheke, i.e. Nyae Nyae. For others, it
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 83
is a recent political label created when Traditional Authorities were
introduced and a large area was divided up into Traditional Authorities with
local chiefs. Some speakers do identify as X’ao-’aen, and distinguish
themselves from the Nyae Nyae Ju|’hoan, while a minority reject both labels
in favour of self-identifying as ’am kxao ‘people of the south’. In Blouberg
(see Figure 1), a community that self-identifies as X’ao-’aen, a speaker
described what he saw as tangible differences in the nature of the people from
his area compared to Nyae Nyae, describing the latter as more aggressive. The
same speaker identified a recording from over 300km away in Botswana as
being the most typically X’ao-’aen. This highlights a real challenge, both
for the documentation and the installation of community-based documentation
programs: where is the community? The experience and expertise of the JTG
in Nyae Nyae would be most profitable to communities in Namibia, to save
having to cross national borders. The orthography in use at Nyae Nyae, and
accredited by the Namibian Ministry of Education, would also be readily
accepted by communities in Namibia as a similar orthography is used for
Nama-Damara, a Khoe-Kwadi language and local vernacular. Communities in
Botswana, however, have greater contact with the Naro language, which is
less prevalent in Namibia, and they have historical and traditional ties with
Nyae Nyae. But the national border is a major hindrance and the orthography
used in Nyae Nyae would be less readily adopted in Botswana, firstly by the
government, but secondly by the speakers who are more familiar with the
Naro orthography (Visser 2000) which uses Roman letters for click sounds:
X’ao-’aen, for example, is written Tcg’aoX’ãe (Visser 2001: 35). In future
our project should consider how we better integrate communities across the
5.2.2 Practicalities of identifying speakers
Given that the term X’ao-’aen means ‘people of the north’ in Naro,
undertaking fieldwork south of Nyae Nyae and asking ‘are you X’ao-’aen?’
could only lead to confusion. Lacking the long-term relationships with
communities that the project in Nyae Nyae thrives on, work on the
X’ao-’aen variety depends on building relationships with new communities
in the Omaheke region. Our aim is to locate speakers who have lived in the
region for several generations with as little connection to Nyae Nyae as
possible. This is no easy task, but assistance with locating communities has
come in many forms, primarily by word-of-mouth once in the field. Being
able to clearly communicate the nature of the project is essential, so as not to
make promises which later cannot be fulfilled if it becomes clear that work
with a particular community is not possible. Albeit normally a fruitful first
port-of-call, local San NGOs sometimes proved counterproductive as
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 84
corruption and poor rapport with communities had resulted in a bad
reputation, which later became the reason one particular community initially
refused to cooperate with the project. Local schools and development agencies
can have a better idea of how different ethnic groups are spread across the
region. The Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa
(WIMSA)6 is a particularly good starting point for projects based in the
region, since they are able to help with information such as which language
groups live at which settlements, or whether or not a settlement has electricity.
Similarly, other projects aimed at improving access to water and other kinds
of local infrastructure may also be able to provide surveys and statistics of
local populations.
Finding speakers who fit the profile of the project is not easy when one has
little knowledge of the sound and structure of the language. Establishing
which variety or dialect a person speaks is far more difficult. Relying on
published dictionaries and grammars is useful, but as was frequently the case,
a feature that appeared to be common to the Omaheke region was also
described by the Ju|’hoan grammar or in the Ju|’hoan dictionary. Whilst
previously the emphasis had been on the synchronic documentation of
Ju|’hoan, working on X’ao-’aen demands that we examine the development
of the language-complex diachronically. It is unreasonable to believe that
everyone living in Nyae Nyae originated from there, and indeed we know the
Nyae Nyae community has long engaged in hxaro ‘gift sharing’ practices with
communities hundreds of miles away in Botswana who are likely to be
X’ao-’aen speakers. The dictionary, for example, has multiple entries for
‘younger sibling’, probably reflecting the various lects of local speakers and
the thoroughness of previous researchers. It remains, however, a synchronic
snapshot of language use, and it is only slowly becoming apparent that some
of the lexical entries for the Nyae Nyae-based dictionary are probably the
result of migration in and out of Nyae Nyae and contact with other speech
communities. Thus, having existing materials can be an advantage, but it can
also be an obstacle when hypothesising about features that one hopes will
provide a backbone for distinguishing lects, vital to the immediate future of
the project. On a positive note, we should never underestimate the expertise of
our language consultants as they are often sensitive to variation, however
phrasing exactly what one is looking for is the test of a good field linguist.
Confusion about labels aside, most people say they speak Ju|’hoan and that
there is no difference at all between the Nyae Nyae and Omaheke varieties.
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 85
For the Botswana Ju|’hoan the situation is slightly different in that all San,
irrespective of the language they speak, are considered to be Ju|’hoan, and
called X’ao-’aen. Asking a speaker how they recognise if someone else is
from their n!ore gives rise to rich and detailed responses: ‘clicks sound
shorter’, ‘they have their own word for “cup” whereas we borrow the word’,
‘we say ghoa and they say ghuin (‘dog’)’. This last comment is another
example where both lexemes are found in the dictionary, even though
speakers treat it as a shibboleth to distinguish between groups.
5.3 A balanced corpus and the role of elders
The documentation of X’ao-’aen centres around building a representative
corpus of primary data in order to gain an authentic picture of how the
language is used today. This can only be achieved by balancing the corpus to
reflect diverse communicative events from an equally diverse range of
speakers. As researchers, we tend to privilege the language of a few elderly
community members, but a corpus with an age bias will not provide a
representative means of describing the language, nor will it offer an authentic
view of language use today. In the case of X’ao-’aen, this is a particularly
salient issue. Interest in hunting and gathering traditions amongst younger
generations has drastically declined; young Omaheke Ju|’hoan are often
unable to talk fluently in their language about such topics. Most consider
partaking in or even learning about such traditions to be trivial if not
completely useless and seek to distance themselves from their ancestors’
culture to better themselves in the public eye. In fact, this sentiment is not just
restricted to younger generations, as even older generations deem ju ’angsi
‘old-time people’ with ‘old-time knowledge’ to have no place in the world of
jusa o a’ike ‘today’s people’. For them, it embodies everything that has left
them stigmatised within the larger society and is wholly redundant (Suzman
2000: 132).
Depending on the community, elders may either be outcasts or the
cherished bearers of folklore and tradition. The difference in communicative
registers between older and younger generations sometimes becomes clear
during transcription. Some younger speakers were thrown off track when
transcribing texts in which an elderly speaker had used a term belonging to an
avoidance register which is employed during hunting to spare the hunter
misfortune. Similarly, in a recording session in Botswana, after an elderly
woman had finished narrating a tale her grandson proclaimed he had only
understood approximately fifty percent of what his grandmother had said.
Naisa, the grandmother, is said to speak an old ‘pure X’ao-’aen’ that no
one speaks any more, and explained she saw no point in raising the matter as
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 86
the younger generations do not understand and the older generations had
therefore ceased to use it. In other communities, even the oldest members
have grown up working on farms and are not only more prone to code-
switching but know very little about hunting and gathering. From a linguistic
point of view, this is important as the speaker will know less of the taboo
terms and avoidance register, which can be particularly relevant in terms of
historical contact with other groups. Ultimately, our goal is to build a
representative corpus of data, to provide a picture of variation in south-eastern
Ju dialects. We will do this by travelling large distances in order gather texts
from young and old, male and female, from multilingual speakers, and
speakers who married in from different linguistic groups. Maintaining the
variety of voices later in the project, however, may prove difficult and we may
encounter new challenges. Good story tellers are not necessarily good at
elicitation, and good consultants may not make the best transcribers. For
example, we gave training in ELAN to a language consultant from Epako (a
location outside of Gobabis where many San live), after which he went on to
make basic transcriptions of texts taken from across the region. The newly-
trained transcriber frequently ‘mistranscribed’ what the speaker had said in
the narrative, replacing elements with forms that he preferred or deemed
correct. As the focus of this phase of our project is on diversity in Ju dialects,
it will be essential that we find means to ensure variation is properly
documented, both by the researchers but also later by the Ju|’hoan
Transcription Group and other community-based programs.
5.4 Documenting traditional knowledge
Attitudes towards hunting and gathering, and the knowledge that goes with it,
vary from community to community, depending heavily on their location. In
Epako the reduced knowledge residents have of hunter-gatherer traditions is
instantly apparent. Many there have never hunted large game since it is now
illegal and, due to the overpopulation of Epako, not a single root vegetable nor
morama bean can be found for miles around the area. Speakers of all ages find
it hard to name animals they have never seen, or to distinguish between plants
and trees that no longer grow near where they live. Close proximity to other
language communities, namely Afrikaans and Nama-Damara, means that
practically all children growing up in Epako are trilingual, and marriage
across ethnic groups is not uncommon. As Gobabis is the capital of the
Omaheke district, many people migrate from afar to find jobs, including from
Nyae Nyae. Thus, there are many speakers of the Nyae Nyae variety living in
Epako. Living in a more urbanised environment brings with it urban facilities,
including pre-schools (run in Nama-Damara or Afrikaans). Other more
isolated communities, like Donkerbos-Sonneblom, or across the border at
Ju|’hoan and
’aen documentation in Namibia 87
Groot Laagte in Botswana, demonstrate a much more optimistic picture of the
vitality of traditional cultural knowledge. In Groot Laagte, food gathering is
still a whole family event, with some women spending many weeks gathering
foodstuffs for their family and in order to sell in town.
6. Conclusion
Documentation projects, despite having the best intentions, often struggle with
the problem of implementing community-based programs that offer
perspectives and options for the community members. It is often not easy to
give back to those who so generously provide us with our primary data,
especially beyond the horizons of the project’s timeframe. The future of our
project is firmly anchored in what we believe to be a community-based
bottom-up structure. Lessons learned from experiences in Nyae Nyae will
provide a smoother transition of skills and resources needed to develop similar
programs to benefit other communities. Among other things, it is hoped that
some of the trained Ju|’hoan of Nyae Nyae will assist in orthography
workshops and training in the use of ELAN. It is very likely that increased
opportunities to meet at regional gatherings provided by NGOs such as
WIMSA will help create the context for such formal gatherings. By ‘formal’,
we refer to what the San see as the relatively self-promoting role of the
‘teacher’, something that was for a long time quite foreign to these egalitarian
people. In the last few years, members of the JTG and their parent
organization, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, have visited other San groups in
parts of both Botswana and South Africa. They are always met with great
openness on the part of hosts, who are generally very enthusiastic to learn new
skills in their own language. For this reason we remain very optimistic,
particularly as it will also provide the JTG with second-to-none teacher-
training experience. We hope this approach will help forge experienced and
motivated local trainers at the core of multiple groups who can continue to
pass on their skills when the researchers have left. The expansion of
community-based programs such as the JTG is an attempt to sustain overall
linguistic diversity and provide future prospects for language communities,
for both of which the outlook is uncertain.
Megan Biesele, Lee Pratchett & Taesun Moon 88
Figure 2: Ju|’hoan Transcription Group in new workroom, Tsumkwe,
Namibia. Picture: Megan Biesele for Kalahari Peoples Fund
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... San tribes on the other hand, have suffered contrasting digital representations ranging from heroically romanticized to ridiculed pejorative [6]. We worked with San people from the Donkerbos area in Namibia who speak ǂX'ao-ǁ'aen [1] and Naro languages. To prompt community reflection, we staged a mediated digital conversation between the Donkerbos community and outsiders. ...
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Toronto, 1999. Includes bibliographical references.
Comparative Vocabularies of Bushman Languages. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, School of African Studies Publications Dickens, Patrick. J. 1991. Ju|'hoan Orthography in Practice
  • Dorothea F Bleek
Bleek, Dorothea F. 1929. Comparative Vocabularies of Bushman Languages. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, School of African Studies Publications Dickens, Patrick. J. 1991. Ju|'hoan Orthography in Practice. South African Journal of African Languages 11(1): 99-104.
A concise grammar of Ju|'hoan: With a Ju|'hoan-English glossary and a subject index
  • Patrick J Dickens
Dickens, Patrick. J. 2005. A concise grammar of Ju|'hoan: With a Ju|'hoan-English glossary and a subject index. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.
Actes du 8ème Congrès de la Société Linguistique de l'Afrique Occidentale
  • O Köhler
Köhler, O. 1971. Noun classes and grammatical agreement in !XNJ (Zû-|hoà dialect). Actes du 8ème Congrès de la Société Linguistique de l'Afrique Occidentale (8th International Congress of African Linguistics).
Die fonologie van Zu|'hoasi
  • Snyman
Snyman, Jan W. 1975a. Die fonologie van Zu|'hoasi. PhD thesis, University of Cape Town.