A documentation and description of Shua (Kalahari East Khoe)

To date, the Shua language, a cluster of dialects, some extinct, of the Kalahari East Khoe lineage (Güldemann & Vossen 2000) is virtually undocumented, and almost nothing is known about it. The main aim of this IP is to document, analyse, and describe the language employing state-of-the-art methods of documentary and descriptive linguistics.

An extensive and comprehensive documentation of the language, ideally focusing on a northern variety, will be prepared that includes interlinearly transcribed texts linked to audio and video files. The intention is that this will represent a wide range of discourse genres, including narrative (traditional, biographical, autobiographical), exposition, harangues, casual conversation, and so on. This broad documentation will be multipurpose, and allow future investigations into domains not targeted in the present IP. The archive will be lodged with DOBES, located in the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen. An important addition to this is a more user-friendly documentation for use by the community of speakers of Shua; this will take the form of a CR-ROM.

One of the major goals of the project is to prepare a comprehensive modern grammatical description of Shua that provides coverage of the major phenomena of language: phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax, and to a lesser extent and more selectively, semantics and pragmatics.

Aside from the goal of presenting a comprehensive modern description of Shua grammar, a small selection of topics will be investigated in greater depth, some of which can be expected to be revealing in relation to the connection between language and cognition (which falls within the third research category ‘Language history, cognition and social organisation’). They include the following, all of which the PI has relevant fieldwork and analytical experience from his work on Australian Aboriginal languages:

(1) Kinship and kinship terminologies – which is the focus of IP5. This project will document the system of Shua kinship terminology using standard elicitation and descriptive techniques, and explore the range of morphological modifications possible (e.g. dyadic and polyadic terms). From this foundation, it will turn to the actual usage of kinterms in context, and explore their pragmatics of use, which is likely to reveal features not evident in the ideal system obtained through decontextualised elicitation. One important question that the project will address is how to distinguish semantics from pragmatics of kinterms – a distinction that is frequently drawn in kinship studies, but rarely adequately explicated. A third component is to investigate ths kinship system itself as a cultural artifact, employing anthropological techniques. The extent to which these three lines on kinship agree and disagree will be explored.

(2) Language and spatial relations and cognition. It has been argued (e.g. Levinson 2003 and a variety of other publications) that spatial cognition is to a large extent determined by the grammar of spatial relations in the language spoken. IP1 will contribute to the exploration of this issue by investigating the grammar of space in Shua and performing spatial experiments in the field of the type developed by Levinson and his colleagues. The main focus will however be on the linguistic systems deployed in representing spatial relations, which are only beginning to be studied in African languages (e.g. Hellwig 2003 on Goemai, and Haun 2007 and Widlock 2008 on ǂAkhoe Hai||om, a Khoekhoe language). Focusing on this area is likely to be revealing of other aspects of the grammar of the language that might otherwise go unnoticed, granted that space impacts on numerous domains of language.

(3) Numerical cognition. There is considerable difference of opinion on the question of whether there is a link between possession of a large vocabulary of numerals and numerical and/or quantitative cognition (e.g. pro Gordon 2004; con Pica et al 2004; Butterworth 2007). Aside from documenting numerals and other quantifying expressions in Shua – which will involve study of the use of the expressions, and address the question of their semantics vs. pragmatics – this project will make an initial attempt to explore numerical cognition generally with the use of experimental techniques developed for the field (see below). Thus the project will contribute to the ongoing debate on the connection between number words and number concepts, and will provide information on an unexplored theme in “Khoisan”.

The data gathered in this project will be directly relevant to the comparative component of the CRP not just in terms of the basic grammatical information, but also in terms of the more detailed kinship and spatial language data gathered, in which connection, IP1 will work closely with IP2 and IP5.

While Hitchcock (1999) gives the ethnic population of both Shua and Tshwa in Botswana and Zimbabwe as 7500, Ethnologue estimates the number of speakers of just Shua in Botswana as around 6.000. Thus, the available information must be regarded as unreliable. Irrespective of the actual number of speakers, the language is endangered, and language shift to local Bantu languages like Tswana, Shona, and Ndebele is ongoing. Given the paucity of previous documentation and the endangered status of Shua, there is an urgent need for immediate research.


Butterworth, Brian. 2007. Number vocabulary and the concept of number: evidence from indigenous Australia. Paper presented at conference Language in cognition, cognition in language, held at Aarhus University, 11-13 October 2007.

Gordon, Peter. 2004. Numerical cognition without words: evidence from Amazonia. Science 306. 496-499.

Güldemann, Tom & Vossen, Rainer. 2000. Khoisan. In Heine, Bernd & Nurse, Derek (eds.), African languages: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 99-122.

Hitchcock, Robert K. 1999. The Tyua of Northeastern Botswana and Western Zimbabwe. In Lee, Richard B. and Richard Daly (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. Cambridge: Canbridge University Press, 225-229.

Haun, Daniel B.M. 2007. Cognitive cladistics and the relativity of spatial cognition. PhD thesis, Radboud University.

Hellwig, Birgit. 2003. The grammatical coding of postural semantics in Goemai (a West Chadic language of Nigeria). PhD thesis, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Catholic University of Nijmegen.

Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in language and cognition: explorations in cognitive diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pica, Pierre, Lemer, Cathy, Izard, Véronique & Dehaene, Stanislas. 2004. Exact and approximate arithmetic in an Amazonian indigene group. Science 306. 499-503.

Widlok, Thomas. 2008. Landscape unbounded: space, place, and orientation in ǂAkhoe Hai||om and beyond. Language Sciences 30. 362-380.



Principal investigator       Researcher
Bill McGregor       Blesswell Kure
Email: linwmg@hum.au.dk             Email: linbk@hum.au.dk   
Aarhus University       Further information
Denmark       Outline of Shua Project