Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



Project Profile: A discourse-based documentation of San varieties in the Western Sandveld Region

Today on the ELAR blog, ELDP grantee Lee Pratchett discusses his project documenting San varieties in the Western Sandveld Region (Central district, Botswana). Lee is currently away on field work in Botswana and was kind enough to give us a look into his current work.

  1. Can you give us some background on the language ecology in your area?

This project focuses on the scantly documented and highly endangered languages spoken by the Kalahari San in a region known as the Western Sandveld, a vast area in the Central District of Botswana. This region is both linguistically and ethnically diverse. The San of the Western Sandveld speak language varieties which belong to the East Kalahari Khoe sub-branch of the Khoe-Kwadi lineage, one of the three genealogically unrelated phyla commonly subsumed under the label Khoisan. These languages are referred to collectively as Tshwa – but they are highly diversified and we suspect that they do not form one single linguistic unit.

Traditionally, the San are hunter-gatherers; however, they survive today on a mixed-economy of small scale agro-pastoralism, government welfare, and low-paid labour working on cattle farms. The cattle farms are usually owned by different and socially more powerful groups, such as the Tswana, the Kalanga, and the Pedi. Most San are fluent in Setswana (Bantu, Niger-Congo), the national language of Botswana. In fact, in various communities, San parents talk exclusively in Setswana with their children and the transmission of Tshwa to younger generations has ceased entirely.

According to speakers, pressure from Bantu pastoralists forced some San communities north into their current locations. Some of these communities would have therefore lived further south until approximately two generations ago. This makes it highly likely that there was contact with other languages spoken by San from an altogether different Khoisan lineage called Kx’a. This is another potential research avenue that I will hopefully find time to explore.

What is your research question and why did you choose it?

This project undertakes documentation in some of the eastern-most reaches of the central Kalahari, an area that has not been subject to vigorous, systematic language documentation. The region is key to several important research questions – not only related to linguistics, but also for our understanding of population dynamics in southern Africa over the last few thousand years. As such, the language varieties targeted in this project are a “research priority” for historical linguistics in the Kalahari Basin and indeed southern Africa (Güldemann 2015ː 38). Importantly, many of these languages are critically endangeredː only in a minority of the communities surveyed thus far is the language actively used as a primary means of communication.


Another intriguing aspect of this project relates to a claim found in anthropological literature that suggests the existence of another, entirely unintelligible language spoken by hunter-gatherers in the region (cf. Valiente-Nouailles 1993). This is exciting for numerous reasons, not least of all because it was only in the 1970s that researchers first documented ǂ’Hoan (Kx’a), some varieties of which are spoken on the south-eastern fringes of the Western Sandveld. This moribund language is distantly related to the language I documented for my PhD. Any new data would be of huge value to southern African linguistics, but also compliment my own personal research interests.


What’s been your highlight of the project so far and why?

By far the highlight of this project so far came a few days agoː one of my most patient, reliable, and charismatic language informants, Ditsoto Ranamane Abaye, who has been accompanied by his cherished and worn guitar every time we’ve met, allowed me to record him playing some music of his own composition which includes him singing in Tshwa. We recorded five songs in the garden of the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe. After each song, Ranamane, known locally as Rams, discussed the song with the curator of the museum and passionate folk-musician, Scobie Lekhutile. Scobie himself knows the local San languages well and even worked with German linguist Rainer Vossen when he was conducting research in the area in the 1990sǃ As it turns out, Professor Vossen was one of my chosen referees when I submitted my project application to ELDP.


Ranamane’s music stops time. His voice is both rough and soft, with an honest soulfulness that emanates life experience. The playful, joyous rythm of the first song causes my mind to shuffle through snapshots of my trip so far. Even when the melody takes a deeper, heavier tone, his fingers seem to whisper gently over the guitar strings.

Scobie then let us in on the meaning behind the different songs, which range from the celebration of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to stories of injustice at the hands of more powerful ethnic groups. This music is both effortless and complex, and I feel privileged to have been able to listen and, more importantly, to understand. Ranamane is well known for one song in particular called Tsam kuun or “Let’s go” that brings everyone to their feet. The irony is that this song is not supposed to be a party song at allː it talks of a San man who is forever being scapegoated by the other local ethnic groups and so suggests to his wife “let’s go”.


Ranamane is one of a very small handful in his community to speak his mother tongue regularly. But Ranamane uses it to forge a unique cultural medium that blends an endangered language, history, politics, and local music styles. The upsetting truth is that although Ranamane’s music has so much to say, very soon, there will be very few who understand the language he is singing in.

I have even been told that Rams does his own version of No woman, no cry – now that I just have to hear!

What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

The resistance of communities or community members to the project has been a constant challenge. This is not because the community does not see the value of the project itself, but rather because getting an unfair deal – something I am afraid to say is not at all without precedent. Southern Africa is full of San iconography. The romantic vision of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the flora and fauna of the Kalahari brings tourists in their droves from around the world. Yet, acculturation here is rife and poverty amongst the indigenous San is disproportionately high. I became aware of this sad reality during my previous project; nevertheless, informants were usually very excited to take part in an incentive that would contribute to the documentation of their culture and provide an additional source of income. Many of the new informants have been much more suspicious of my work. They are more conscious that some people make a lot of money marketing San culture. The bitter history surrounding the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the ancestral home of many San groups before being evited in the late 20th century, also figures prominently in local discourse.

As a result, community members are more cautious about engaging with the project. One elderly informant even asked if she would appear on Facebook – although I cannot imagine she really knows what Facebook is. Others demanded that I speak with every type of official, headman, social worker, community development officer, and police officer, before even the most basic of research questions could be asked. Sometimes this meant that a lot of time was invested only to learn afterwards that the language was not used any more. It also means that the entire community must be on-boardː if a community member does not necessarily want to contribute his or herself and feels uncomfortable about the project in general, work comes to a swift halt until the individual feels reassured. The more tedious aspect to this is not investing time to ensure harmony and build trust, but rather that, sometimes, those with the strongest objections are the ones least likely to benefit directly from the project. This has been a test of diplomacy on multiple fronts.

What still needs to be done?

There is still a lot to accomplish. Two tasks are never far from the front of my mind, and both contribute to producing a faithful description of the language. The first is to do with the representation of the language community in my evolving language corpus. This means visiting more than one community wherever possible to work with a variety of speakers. Here in the Kalahari, some communities are only five or ten kilometres apart, others are hundreds of kilometres apart. But without having a reliable data sample, however small, from different communities, discussing linguistic variation and divergence becomes all but impossible. Furthermore, we do not know when such an opportunity will arise again or how the vitality of the language and culture will change in the very near future. To this end, I believe I have made good headway, and early indications signal that the extra legwork will be worthwhile.


My second concern relates to compiling an accessible corpus of natural language data with which to describe the language. As far as this is concerned, there is still a mountain to climb – or rather, a desert to cross. The corpus itself promises to be diverse, and I look forward to transcribing Ranamane’s songs and some of the other folktales collected so far. However, in practice, this is very difficult as I have yet to find informants who are conversant in English. For the time being, I work through a Setswana translator even for elicitation sessions. This makes the entire process arduous for all concerned and much is lost in translation. One must be conscious not only of the language structure of the metalanguage (English) but also the language it goes through (Setswana). Sometimes, it feels like playing Chinese whispers on helium. Thus, whilst I still need to get a firm grip on the language itself, I am conscious of having enough time to make sure I do not end up with hours of recordings that no one can access.

It might seem naive to expect that the Tshwa speak English at all, but it is the official language of Botswana and the first language taught at school. And, in my experience, the standard of English in Botswana is generally good. If anything, the situation reflects the high drop-out rate of school children in San communities.

Thank you, Lee! To learn more about Lee’s project and the San varieties, visit the ELAR catalogue.


Güldemann, Tom & Anne-Maria Fehn (eds.). 2014. ‘Beyond ‘Khoisan’: historical relations in the Kalahari Basin. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Valiente-Nouailles, Carlos. 1993. The Kua: Life and Soul of the Central Kalahari Bushmen, Rotterdam, A.A. Balkema.

Blog post by Lee Pratchett

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