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Endangered Language Watch: Shiyeyi

Sports teams are not the only things struggling for survival in Southern Africa during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Like professional soccer outfits, languages often compete for dominance, and overtime some of them advance while others lose speakers and begin to disappear.

UNESCO reports that more than half of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world today are endangered and may go extinct by the end of this century. Recently, Beyond Words covered some of the most popular languages of South Africa, and now we’d like to focus on one of the lesser known threatened languages of the region. Southern Africa (including but not limited to the nations of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa) is a hotspot of language endangerment.

The first installment of Beyond Words’ new feature Endangered Language Watch—in which writers discuss languages at risk of extinction around the world—will focus on the Shiyeyi language.


Shiyeyi is an endangered language spoken primarily in Botswana. Also known as Ciyei, Koba, Kuba, Yeei, Yei, and Yeyi, the language remains one of several Bantu languages with clicks. While figures from 2004 show that about 20,000 people living in Batswana have learned Shiyeyi as a first language, very few people in the nation learn it as a second language.

In terms of cultural significance, the Ethnologue reports that as many as 47,000 people in Batswana constitute the language’s ethnic population, or the “population of those who identify themselves as part of the ethnic group” but do not speak the language of that ethnic group (in this case, the Wayeyi people). Shiyeyi also has a small presence in neighboring Namibia, with close to 4,000 speakers. Notably, Shiyeyi may have more clicks than any other Bantu language. Containing alveolar, dental, lateral, and palatal articulations, or releases, the language continues to lose popularity to Tswana, Botswana’s national language.

Unlike Kua, Néu, ú Hua, or Xiri (other languages in the region which have fewer than 1000 speakers remaining), Shiyeyi is in the midst of a cultural and linguistic revitalization. A UNESCO education report shows that the Kamanakao Association, established in Botswana in 1995, has made progress in trying to revive Shiyeyi.

Historically, the government in Botswana prevented groups like the Kamanakao Association from teaching languages other than Tswana and English. As the government’s language policies eased, the Kamanakao (which translates to ‘the remnants’ from Shiyeyi) has been able to collect data, setup workshops, and record oral literature throughout the Shiyeyi-speaking region. These recovery efforts shouldn’t be overstated—as the language is still deeply endangered—but the fact that organized groups are actively attempting to save their culture’s linguistic heritage is heartening. You can visit the Kamanakao Association’s website for more information.

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