Inheritance and contact in a language complex:
The case of Taa varieties (Tuu family)

The only surviving member of the Tuu family (formerly "Southern Khoisan") with a substantial number of speakers is the Taa language complex. It is a large cluster of dialects spoken by small bands of former hunter-gatherers (commonly referred to as "San") and stretching geographically from east-central Namibia from the Nossob River over the former Aminuis reserve into the Ghanzi and Kgalagadi Districts of Botswana up to a line Okwa-Tsetseng-Dutlwe-Werda. Mutual intelligibility usually exists between neighboring varieties, but differences between geographically remote dialects can amount to a linguistic distance found between languages. According to the presently available data the Taa complex seems to fall into two major units, namely West !Xoon (spoken exclusively in Namibia) vs. the rest comprising all other varieties, from 'N|ohan (spoken on both sides of the Namibia-Botswana border) to East !Xoon (the easternmost Taa dialect in Botswana). Today West !Xoon and 'N|ohan are no longer separated geographically and socially because both speech communities have been pushed constantly towards the Botswana border and now intermingle there.

The dialectal diversity of Taa is still hardly documented, with the following exceptions:
(I) East !Xoon, which has been extensively documented since the early 1970s by the late A. Traill; the majority of the material remains unpublished, however. Its analysis and preparation for publication will be carried out within the applicant's projects in cooperation with H. Nakagawa.
(II) West !Xoon, which is under investigation since 2004 by a DOBES project under the direction of the applicant; the grant ends in 2009.
(III) 'N|ohan, also under investigation by the above DOBES project but with less intensity.
(IV) The remaining time of the DOBES project will be dedicated partly to a first reconnaissance survey of the undescribed Taa dialects in Botswana; this research, however, will not be sufficient to provide an equilibrated documentation of the entire cluster.

Taa is an endangered language according to several parameters:
(1) The ethno-linguistic groups are traditionally small and fragmented and today lack sustainable and coherent territories of their own (presumably not more than 4000 speakers overall).
(2) The language has a generally low social status compared to other groups in Namibia and Botswana, and is affected by political, economical, and socio-linguistic marginalization.
(3) The process of complete cultural assimilation, and associated with it language shift away from Taa, is well under way in great parts of the original distribution area and is likely to spread to the few remaining pockets where the language is still dominant. Taa is no longer spoken in most of its earlier territory in Namibia between the Nossob River and the national border but confined to a few settlements in the so-called "Corridor". In Botswana the locations with a sizeable number of speakers are more numerous, but they are fragmented and even there other languages have started to take over.

In its wide geographical range Taa speakers have been and still are in contact with a wide variety of different ethnolinguistic groups speaking languages belonging to five different language families: Tuu (other than Taa itself), Khoe, Ju-ǂHoan, Bantu, and Germanic. The so-called "Khoisan" languages surrounding the Taa area on the western, northern, and eastern flank are in that order: Nama (Khoekhoe, Khoe-Kwadi family), Ju|'hoan (Ju, Ju-ǂHoan family), Naro and Gǁana varieties (Kalahari Khoe, Khoe-Kwadi family), and ǂHoan (Ju-ǂHoan family). The southern contact languages are not well-known, because the relevant areas lie mostly in South Africa and Namibia and have been severly disrupted sociolinguistically in the more distant past, so that most languages seem to be extinct. According to the available information, at least some languages would have belonged to other Tuu branches, like |'Auni and |Haasi from the Lower Nossob subgroup and possibly N|uu from the !Ui subgroup. The southern Taa area and its adjacent zones are still little known. Moreover, remnant speakers of N|uu were re-discovered in this area in the recent past. Accordingly, a thorough survey of this region and a search for surviving contact languages is an important and urgent task of future research. The Bantu languages which are in contact with different Taa varieties are from west to east Herero, Kgalagadi, and Tswana. Afrikaans is also an important contact language in Namibia. The Bantu languages as well as Nama and Afrikaans, according to the area, have been and still are the target of language shift on the part of Taa speakers. The great number of contact languages from different genealogical groups and the variety of contact situations (i.e. Taa in contact with languages of equal or higher social prestige) provide an ideal laboratory in which we can explore how a widespread language complex can diversify internally through differential language contact. Despite the still limited data on the Taa complex it can already be discerned that some of its internal diversity is due to the different contact situations the individual Taa dialects were in. For example, while the ongoing fieldwork on West !Xoon revealed that it has notable lexical influence from Nama, East !Xoon has been shown to have such influences from G|ui (Traill & Nakagawa 2000). The particular contact patterns seem to have been different, though: Nama, as a language of colonizing pastoralist groups, is one of the prestige languages for West !Xoon and even the target of language shift, so that the Nama influence is due to borrowing; East !Xoon, however, appears to have expanded geographically on the expense of G|ui, another hunter-gatherer group, so that the G|ui influence could be characterized partly as the result of substrate interference. The geolinguistic setting of Taa provides the background for the following project goals:
(I) continued/first documentation and analysis of Taa dialects
(II) identification of the inter-dialectal divergence across the entire Taa cluster
(III) survey of the southern sphere of Taa searching for possibly surviving San languages
(IV) systematization of non-Taa data on discourse, morphosyntax, lexicon, phonetics-phonology
(V) comparison of Taa and non-Taa data with respect to language contact (primary focus on indigenous non-Bantu languages, but also controlling for contact with Bantu and Afrikaans)

The documentation component is planned to involve local researchers and native speakers who will be trained as far as possible in the necessary field work methods. This local capacity building has already been started by and will be continued in the remaining time of the ongoing DOBES project of the applicant on Namibian Taa varieties.


Principal investigator    Location
Tom Güldemann    Invalidenstr. 118, room 411
Email:       Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin  
Christfried Naumann