• Language: ǀXam
  • Region: Southern Africa
  • Contributor: Sylvia Vollenhoven, Virginia MacKenny and collaborators
to shoot with a magical arrow or go on a magical expedition
disparar con una flecha mágica o realizar una expedición mágica

In the now extinct language of the |Xam Bushman people of Southern Africa |Xau or |Xaun meant to shoot with a magical arrow or go on a magical expedition.

My people had a word – No, more than a word – |Xau flowed through us – Lived in us – Connected us – Then it left us

When it went away – This word that is more than a word – It tumbled down the mountains – And out of our mouths – A precious possession… stolen, gone

Nothing has come to fill the vacant house of the |Xau – Magic does not live in the home of the new words – Disconnected broken arrows  – Going nowhere

Our children play with empty words – That do not speak of mystical journeys

|Xau – My people had a word

|Xau – So much more than a word

|Xau – Melodies no longer heard

But deep in the earth there is healing – The land awaits our right doing – Ancestral Voices guide us back – To other Magical Arrows – And the melody of words that are more than words

To the |Xau of now

By Sylvia Vollenhoven

It is hard to restore our connections with the land, our love and respect of all that is, without finding the |Xau of now.

When I am a young girl growing up in apartheid South Africa my mother tongue is Afrikaans, a fascinating hybrid language with slave ancestry and the youngest on our Continent. It scoops up Asia, Africa and Europe in its arms and is closer to our hearts than English (the lingua franca of South Africa). When I am a young woman grappling with issues of identity, apartheid propaganda declares a version of my mother tongue to be the linguistic glue for driving the white Afrikaner people from racist nationalism to 20th Century nationhood. 

For the mixed descendants of the colonials and the slaves (brought to South Africa mainly from Asia and other parts of Africa) our version of Afrikaans has been until recently the only tool we have had to build and solidify an African identity. 

But now things are changing. We are going back into history to fetch precious intangible possessions that have been ripped out of our existence, out of our beings. There is talk of colonial overlords historically knocking out the front teeth of my people so that we could not pronounce the clicks of our indigenous languages. But in Southern Africa people are healing and relearning the languages that have survived, mainly Khoekhoegowab or its closest equivalent Nama.

The word concept |Xau, unearthed in an ancient dictionary, is a powerful example of what we have lost. The newer languages, inept by comparison, that have come to replace the rich indigenous lexicons do not have a word that comes close in meaning to “shoot with a magical arrow”. 

When our languages were destroyed, we lost important elements of our culture and we lost entire civilisations. We have lost perspectives and a way of being in the world. Emulating a colonial way of expressing ourselves, our connection with the land and with the divine aspects of ourselves has been broken. This disconnect this brokenness, fuels self-destruction and in the process aids the destruction of the earth that sustains us. 

Tumbling around in the maelstrom of the modern world, in search of what we have lost, we need to find those magical arrows. We need to find the |Xau of now to restore our relationship with the land and the divine within. Only then can we return to valuing the earth once more. Only then will we begin to heal what has been destroyed without and within.

Sylvia Vollenhoven is an indigenous South African author, playwright and filmmaker. Her seminal work on Khoesan identity, The Keeper of the Kumm, was awarded the nation‘s prestigious Mbokodo Prize for Literature and short-listed for all the major SA literary awards.

More about the |Xam language

The Language from which the word |Xau or |Xaun comes is |Xam (hear how to pronounce this word)

ǀXam is regarded by some as an extinct language of the Bushman people (a reclaimed and preferred term) of Southern Africa but its resonance can be found in modern Khoikhoi languages on the sub-Continent. The main, related modern language that has survived colonial devastation is Khoekhoegowab. |Xam was spoken by the ǀXam-ka ǃʼē people. This name or grouping was more a regional and geographic distinction than anything else. Much of the scholarly work on ǀXam was performed by Dr Wilhelm Bleek, a German linguist of the 19th century, his researcher sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd and their ǀXam-ka ǃʼē teacher informants ǁKábbo, Diaǃkwāin, ǀAǃkúṅta, ǃKwéite̥n ta ǁKēn, ǀHaṅǂkassʼō and other speakers. As a result, there is a surviving corpus of ǀXam that comes from the stories told by these individuals in the Bleek and Lloyd Collection at the University of Cape Town. Bleek’s daughter Dorothea added to the work, compiling a “Bushman Dictionary” that was published many years later.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Learn more

English (UK)