International Dictionary Day

International Dictionary Day (ITD) is celebrated annually on the 16th of October and celebrates the birth of Noah Webster, an American writer who was born in 1758. Webster is best-known for publishing the first English dictionary in 1806, which he continued to compile and expand for the next 27 years.

On the 11th of November 2022, I had the pleasure of attending PANSALB’S International Dictionary Day Virtual Celebration . As the office librarian, I am always intrigued when it comes to anything concerning dictionaries. The invitation to attend this webinar was well received and even though I did not know what to expect, I knew that it would be an interesting opportunity to learn something new.

It was at this virtual celebration where one of the speakers, Mr Julius Dantile, PANSALB’s Executive Head of Languages, held up a dictionary that I had never seen or heard of before. This dictionary intrigued me, not only because the word “N|uuki” stood proudly on the cover or because the beautiful cover design got my stamp of approval, but because Mr Dantile mentioned the name, Katrina Esau. I remembered the name well as she is one of the last living fluent N|uu speakers.

Now, you see the way a dog’s tail starts wagging whenever he sees his owner approaching him with his favourite or even a new toy. If I had a tail, I would imagine it wagging the moment I saw that dictionary. A new dictionary to explore, how exciting! When you’re in charge of the upkeep of an office library, you’re always on the lookout for new additions, especially additions that are unique and usually hard to come by. After exploring various avenues, I made contact with Tshikani Mabasa, Director of Human Language Technologies of the Department of Arts and Culture, who referred me to Dr Kerry Jones of African Tongue who could provide us with a copy of the dictionary in Cape Town. Dr Jones was extremely kind and informed us that we could collect a copy from their office free of charge.

At this stage I had done my research and knew the N|uuki dictionary was published earlier this year. It is representative of a remarkable heritage for the indigenous peoples and the result of people coming together to do everything in their power to document and preserve indigenous languages. Furthermore, all of this coincides with the United Nations declaring 2022-2032 as the International Decade for Indigenous Languages, drawing global attention to the preservation, revitalisation and promotion of indigenous languages. The dictionary received widespread media coverage as it is the first dictionary that contains N|uu, South African Nama(gowab), Northern Cape Afrikaans and South African English, and also the first major publication containing a language thought by many to be extinct – the N|uu language.

N|uu was spoken by South Africa’s earliest inhabitants, the ǂKhomani San of the southern Kalahari. This language is often described as a linguistic treasure as years ago many people believed it to be extinct. It was in 1995 when N|uu was “rediscovered” when they found living speakers of this ancient language. Linguists Nigel Crawhall and Professor Tony Traill then documented a short word-list of the language and made video recordings of the mother-tongue speakers. Years of meticulous documentation by various roleplayers would ensue, and aside from the compilation of this dictionary, the more recent attempts focused on the production of storybooks and language learning materials.

Today there is only one remaining fluent speaker of N|uu, ǂXuu|eeki Katrina Esau. Esau played a crucial role during the compilation of the N|uuki dictionary as she was not only a contributor, but also an advisor and authenticator with regards to the N|uu entries. Determined to preserve her heritage, Esau started teaching the language years ago. The N|uu lessons take place at her home in the Northern Cape and she has also published the first N|uu children’s book titled !Qhoi n|a Tjhoi / Skilpad en Volstruis / Tortoise and Ostrich. On 27 April 2014 Esau was honored for her work when she received The Order of the Baobab in Silver for her exceptional contribution to the preservation of a language that is facing the threat of extinction. The Order of the Baobab is awarded annually by the President of South Africa to South African citizens who have rendered a distinguished service in a specific field. By exposing more people to her mother tongue, Esau is ensuring that N|uu will be remembered and understood by generations to come.

Language forms part of our cultural heritage and this dictionary highlights the rich linguistic heritage of the Northern Cape. It also showcases the deep history and resilience of the people living at the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert. Even though this dictionary is representative of the outstanding heritage of the ǂKhomani San, it will be treasured not only by them but by linguaphiles of all stripes for generations to come. When I look at this dictionary and read of all the people who helped make it a reality, I can only stand in awe of all the years and effort that went into completing it and this only makes one appreciate the dictionary that much more. It was a labour of love for language.

May all of us continue to see our mother tongues in the same way as these contributors  – as a special resource we get to share with others. The speakers of a language may not be around forever but if we document what we know about a language and its accompanying culture for future generations, we contribute to the preservation of our collective heritage. It is also the perfect way of paying homage to the language we uttered our first words in, the language we first laughed and cried in, our mother tongue which can never be taken away from us. I mean, how can someone take something from you when it’s as much a part of you as the blood running through your veins?

Below are links to some of the media coverage this dictionary received:


The online version of the N!uuki dictionary was released in November and is available via the following link:

An instructional video is provided here: How to use the web-portal for the online N|uu Dictionary? – YouTube

– Alyssa Eksteen