‘Click’ and save: Professor strives to preserve language
October 19, 2019
>>Theresa Bierer: Welcome to this edition
of Inside NAU, I’m Theresa Bierer. Flagstaff as a university town brings together a unique
mix of people, many working on projects most of us never hear about. One is a Northern
Arizona University adjunct faculty member doing work that will benefit people on the
other side of the world. Bonnie Sans is a linguist specializing in the click languages,
there are about 30 click languages still spoken today, all of them in Africa.
>>Bonny Sands: So Nelson Mandela, he former president of South Africa, his mother tongue
is a language called Xhosa and Xhosa and isiZulu those are languages spoken by millions of
people in South Africa. But the languages I work on are spoken by kind of like the people
who are the equivalent to the Native Americans in the U.S. They are the first peoples in
Southern Africa.>>Bierer: Sands’ work is funded by the National
Science Foundation. She recently returned from Namibia in the southwestern part of the
continent. Most people in the area speak Afrikaans a language introduced by the Dutch protestant
settlers several hundred years ago. Some people think that click languages can’t be written
or that the languages can’t adapt to the modern era of computers. Sands says her work is helping
locals realize that’s not true.>>Sands: In a way reclaiming your language
is a way of saying, nope we’re here and these are the words that my grandfather’s grandfathers
and my grandmother’s grandmothers used and we still speak to us today. Some of these
words you just could never make them up. There is so much knowledge about the landscape,
the environment, the way of life that is embedded in each word.
>>Bierer: In Namibia Sands and two other linguist were studying a language called !XUN . They
interviewed dozens of people asking them to pronounce different words. Several techniques
were employed, including palatography>>Sands: You take a mixture of olive oil and
charcoal powder and paint the tongue and a person can say a word like Xa and open their
mouth and you can see what part of the roof of the mouth was painted with that charcoal
and oil mixture. And the reverse of that can also be done, you can paint the roof of the
mouth and XA, stick out the tongue and see what part of the tongue was used producing
the click.>>Bierer: Dr. Sands and her group used another
more high tech method of documenting the click words, an ultra sound machine. The same technology
used to see a pregnant woman’s fetus. A helmet was used to keep the head still so the scientists
could determine how much of the movement was the tongue and how much was the head.
>>Sands: The tongue is a really fast moving muscle and it’s, in the past the only way
to look at the tongue is with x-rays and x-rays come with risk that we don’t like to subject
people to. So the ultrasound is really a safe way to look at the way that the tongue moves.
>>Bierer: And this team is the first to use ultrasound in this way, the ultrasound images
taken from under the chin help Sands and her colleagues see the root of the tongue. A click
is made when there is suction or when two parts of the tongue move at once.
>>Sands: There is nothing unusual about them, clicks are just consonants. So in fact clicks
almost help us learn more about the way consonants are made than other say just English consonants
would. Because the tongue is constrained in different ways, because you have to be doing
so many different things with your tongue, it really tells us what the human body is
capable of.>>Bierer: Young residents of this southwestern
region of Africa may one day benefit from the work of Sands and her team members because
there are no education materials for their language.
Part of why we wanted to do this study was to see how different Khoe and Jul’hoan. Whether
the Khoe kids could use the Jul’hoan school materials or not or whether they needed their
own materials. So one of the things I’m doing is collecting a list of words and comparing
them, so we know some of the sounds and some of the words are different. But whether this
is really a separate language or simply a different dialect we’re not sure yet.
>>Bierer: Now that Sands is back in Flagstaff she’s doing the more difficult part of her
job, analyzing the data collected in the Kalahari Desert. Comparing transcriptions made in the
field with sound waves, analyzing the clicks and how they coordinate with vowels and other
consonants. Knowing her work here can help the people she met and worked with in Namibia
and their children and grandchildren.