On the outskirts of Upington, in South Africa's Northern Cape, there lives a queen. The queen is elderly and when she dies it may not just be she who is gone, but an entire realm.
Katrina Esau is 88. Her community crowned her Queen of the Western Nǁnǂe (ǂKhomani) San in 2015. A year earlier, then-president Jacob Zuma presented her with the National Order of the Baobab in Silver.
For the previous eight decades, Esau had gone largely unnoticed. Her people, the San – of whom the Western Nǁnǂe (ǂKhomani) are one group of many – are good at that. Their survival depended on it: first for the countless centuries that they had South Africa to themselves, living deftly on the land as hunter gatherers. And then, with the arrival of other groups, to evade the scrutiny of those who meant them harm.
Esau was born on the farm where her parents worked. The farm's Afrikaner owner obnoxiously renamed the young queen "Geelmeid". "Meid" means "maidservant" while "geel" (yellow) is a crass reference to skin tone. Today, some still know her – lovingly – as Ouma (Grandma) Geelmeid. But often it's Queen Katrina.
The farm owner also forbade Esau from speaking her mother tongue, N|uu; a language with roots to humanity's very origins. Instead, the newly minted Afrikaans language (a mere 300 or so years old) would be Esau's camouflage for almost her entire life.
N|uu is one of our last linguistic links to the earliest humans: the hunter gatherers of southern and eastern Africa
Cut off on the isolated farm, speaking Afrikaans, Esau began "burying" the language that she had "sucked from [her] mother's breast". This act of burial was just one funeral of many: the language, a descendant of those spoken by the first humans, had already been dealt its death blow a decade or so earlier.
The year 1931 saw the opening of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (now incorporated into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park). The terrain here is semi-desert, with two dry riverbeds, the Nossob and Auob, that flow once in a blue moon. Yet for the ǂKhomani, the last community of people to speak Esau's language, the landscape was home. The park's opening saw the ǂKhomani families evicted and scattered, smashing the one remaining circuit board of the language. ǂKhomani children would henceforth be born into a world of Afrikaans.
Along with !Xun (spoken in Namibia), ǂAmkoe and Taa (both spoken in Botswana), N|uu is one of our last linguistic links to the earliest humans: the hunter gatherers of southern and eastern Africa. All four languages are endangered: ǂAmkoe has 1,000 or so speakers; Taa 3,000 speakers; and !Xun 14,000 to 18,000.
N|uu, meanwhile, has just two: Esau and her brother Simon Sauls.
We don't know when the N|uu language developed – it is too ancient to age precisely – but certainly its roots could not be deeper. Yet if it becomes one of the 600 to 800 languages likely to disappear in the near future, it's not just its antiquity that we should mourn. N|uu's richness and beauty are also astonishing: English has 44 distinct speech sounds (phonemes), for instance, while N|uu has 114.
Then there are its clicks. The bar in "N|uu" represents a click consonant – specifically a dental click, articulated with the tongue tip sucking quickly away from the upper teeth. A century ago, at least 100 indigenous click languages were likely spoken in the southern and eastern regions of Africa. To those unfamiliar with clicks, it can seem as if a click-language speaker's mouth has morphed into a percussion instrument. Consider that N|uu makes meaningful distinction between an incredible 45 clicks; to hear the language spoken fluently is to experience a linguistic fireworks display.
The star of the N|uu click repertoire is the phenomenally rare bilabial "kiss click", which sounds uncannily like an air smooch and features in just two of the world's 7,000 or so other languages. (One of them is Taa, which has 111 click phonemes.)
As Esau's years have advanced, her urgency to sow new seeds of N|uu has increased. In the early 2000s, she started teaching the language to her community from a schoolroom built in her front yard in Rosedale, a township near Upington, using song, dance and play. Her pupils, who range in age from three to 19, are the only students of N|uu in the world.