|The last speakers - Yaaku language saved from extinction|
The story goes that the Yaaku held a meeting in the 1930s and decided to relinquish their language and from that moment on speak only Maasai. At the time they were already in close contact to the Maasai, whose culture they perceived as superior. Whether this was really such a conscious decision is of course doubtful. What is certain, is that in a public meeting held a few years ago, they decided to return to their native language. Now language usage is usually not a thing that can be decided by political decree, so this decision will be hard to realize.
The Yaaku were curious to hear the opinion of linguists on the question whether there is sufficient knowledge available in the community to revive the language. So in the first week of 2005 the Yaaku committee invited us to the town of Doldol in Central Kenya. Our travelling group consisted of Maarten Mous, linguistic researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Hans Stoks, pastoral worker with the Maasai in Kenya, and Matthijs Blonk, who will record the whole experience on video.
The next few days we work with these two people, recording words and sentences. Yaponay invariably turns up at these sessions with her three great-grandchildren. She carries the youngest on her back. The old woman takes care of the children because both the parents died. It is a heavy task for a woman alone, especially if you think that she must be about one hundred years old. Her age can be deduced from the name of her age group, Terito, going back to a Maasai system to name every generation which is circumcised within a time span of seven years.
Unfortunately we cannot get him to make a real speech, or produce an account of more than a few sentences. Quite abruptly he has had enough and starts to leave. But his few words have shown him to be a fluent speaker, who does not have to think before he speaks. Apart from Legunia, Stephen and Yaponay, a younger brother of Yaponay is present, Jomo Lelendola. He knows a lot of words in Yaaku, but has a hard time producing a simple sentence, let alone a longer speech. Not surprising if you bear in mind that for the Yaaku elders, this is the first conversation in their own language since several decades. They are used to speaking Maasai, except for Yaponay, who speaks Yaaku with her great-grandchildren.
More speakers or semi-speakers of Yaaku are not to be found in the region around Doldol. There is an old woman who allegedly speaks the language, but she doesn’t respond well to our visit. She nags about money and refuses to cooperate. Hans Stoks has worked with two old elders a year ago, but they have passed away. Scattered around Kenya there are some aged clan members who spoke Yaaku in the distant past. The most hopeful clue we have is about a remote village called Nadung’oro, which is supposed to still house a few speakers. It lies at a day’s walk from Doldol, but luckily we can hitch a ride on a Landcruiser owned by the Catholic mission.
We send theLandcruiser to her boma to pick her up. She arrives accompanied by her two daughters, and immediately bursts into Yaaku. She even manages to tell a whole story about an elephant. The story is translated by Kitime, who is one generation younger than Roteti. With some hope we work with Kitime at his boma later in the day. We find out that although he understands the language, he cannot speak it actively. It is interesting to note how he simplifies verb conjugation, but at the same time it is exemplary of the state the language is in.
After one week of research, we conclude that there are three speakers who still speak the language fluently: Yaponay, Roteti and perhaps Legunia. But all three of them are about a hundred years old, and they have a hard time thinking about their language and understanding what we want. Then there are people like Stephen Lerico, Jomo Lelendola and Kitime who understand the language and are able to speak it to a certain extent, but for whom the grammar is no longer intact. And finally there is the group of people who know a few Yaaku words, but who are unable to form a sentence.
Presently there is a counter-movement. Now that the Yaaku identity has all but disappeared, the sense is growing that something valuable is about to be lost. As a Yaaku, one does not have to feel like a second rate citizen, as any Maasai of Dorobo origin will inevitably feel. The emancipation which is taking place among the Yaaku is mainly aimed at winning back their self-respect. The one thing which most clearly distinguishes the Yaaku from the Maasai is their language. It is easy to borrow outward characteristics like clothing, but one cannot put on another language in the morning.
The Yaaku movement wants to try to restore the Yaaku identity by reviving the language. A sense of identity is important for development. Only a clear identity will make their claim to Mukogodo forest bear weight. Only as a separate people distinct from the Maasai, a people who have maintained the forest for hundreds of years, can they claim it as their communal property. The issue is very much alive, since the Kenyan government is preparing a new constitution which might accommodate the land rights of the Yaaku.
Complicating the question of Yaaku land rights is the matter of another land conflict in the area. Last year was the termination date of a treaty signed in 1904 between the British colonial rule and Maasai leader Laibon Lenana. It leased a great area of Maasai land to white farmers for one hundred years. According to the treaty, the land would remain the property of the Maasai. The area borders on and overlaps with the area where the Yaaku currently live, and so parts of Yaaku land are also claimed by Maasai. This claim of two peoples to the same land could easily lead to a tribal conflict in this already relatively overpopulated area.
for language renewal
The Mbugu now speak two languages: one which closely resembles Pare, and one which shares its grammar with Pare, but uses a different vocabulary. They constructed this hybrid language when they realized that they had lost their own language and only spoke Pare. They mixed as many words as possible of their old language through the Pare, adding words from other languages like Maasai or Iraqw, as long as they didn’t resemble Pare. This hybrid language provided them with an identity.
method might be an option for the Yaaku aswell. If they are determined
to revive their language, they could keep the Maasai grammar which
they learned as a child, and replace as many words as possible with
original Yaaku words. That’s why it is important that the Yaaku get
a dictionary of their own language. We could provide it for them,
together with cassettes containing spoken words and stories, to practise
pronunciation. Schools would be willing to take up Yaaku in their
curriculum, if they are provided with the proper material. Of course
it is essential that the few remaining speakers keep on speaking the
language among themselves and with others of the community. It has
been suggested to settle the remaining speakers in a single ‘language-boma’,
to create a core group of Yaaku speakers.
Mous is professor of African Linguistics at the University of Leiden
in the Netherlands.
translation by David van Eijndhoven of the main article of the may/june
2005 issue of Indigo,