Review – South Africa and the Origin of Language (2009)

Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Volume 11, Number 3, 2010

Reviewed by

Hedley Twidle

University of Cape Town
Representing Bushmen: South Africa and the Origin of Language. By Shane Moran. (Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press, 2009).


“We move upon a giddy height when we attempt to know the direction of the world’s development” – so runs the opening line of an 1868 monograph by the Prussian-born philologist Wilhelm Bleek, Über den Ursprung der Sprache (On the Origin of Language). With a preface by the fervent Darwinist Ernst Haeckel (Bleek’s cousin), it was just one of a flood of nineteenth-century exercises in comparative philology which attempted to map evolutionary theory onto the study of language and to divine linguistic origins as a master-key to human history: “the living and speaking witness of the whole history of our race”, as Friedrich Max Müller put it in 1862, “an unbroken chain of speech” carrying one back beyond cuneiform and hieroglyphics to “the first utterances of the human mind.”1

Bleek’s unusual career would take him from the universities of Bonn and Berlin to southern Africa and from such rarefied (and now obsolete) theorising to a much more practical encounter with a specific language community. In 1870, following a request to the governor of the Cape Colony, he obtained permission to have an inmate from Cape Town’s Breakwater Convict Station transferred to his villa. Over the next fourteen years, he and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd would accommodate a succession of individuals from four extended families of |Xam-ka !ei: a people descended from one branch of the indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa who had no collective name for themselves, but were known to the Dutch as Bosjemans, to the English as Bushmen, and to the cattle-owning Khoekhoen as Sonqua, Soaqua or San. In colonial suburbia, individuals like Diä!kwain (David Hoesar), |Han≠kass”o (Klein Jantje) and ||Kabbo (Oud Jantje Tooren) were received first as convicts on parole, servants and “native informants” for Bleek’s abstruse philological enquiries, yet increasingly as valued teachers, storytellers, artists and (in Lloyds phrase) “givers of native literature.”2

The Bleek and Lloyd Collection now comprises the most important written record of the earliest expressive cultures of southern Africa: some 150 notebooks filled with phonetic notations of the languages once spoken by southern Africa’s Xam and !Kung peoples with English translations alongside that run to some 13,000 pages.3 Its rediscovery has been one of the major events of South African scholarship in the last decades, bringing together archaeology, linguistics, literature, museum display, rock art studies and cultural politics, often controversially, in an attempt to explicate an archive that is by turns mythical and autobiographical, violent and comic, digressive, impenetrable, poetic and greatly moving.

That, at least, is how the story is most often told, and it is precisely this narrative that Shane Moran sets out to contest. Following a series of articles in which he recast titles from the collection in order to reverse the ethnographic gaze – offering accounts of “Specimens of ‘Bushman’ Studies” and “Customs and Beliefs of Bleek and Lloyd Scholarship” within the contemporary academy – we now have a dense and wide-ranging work that is bracingly impatient with the atmosphere of piety, melancholia and veneration that surrounds the archive.4

In the received, optimistic narrative, Bleek, a man ahead of his time, sets aside his philological endeavours and his unfinished Comparative Grammar of South African languages to devote his attention to a culture that is fast disappearing. In so doing, he performs a valuable service to the future, multiracial nation state; after all, the national Coat of Arms unveiled by President Thabo Mbeki on 27 April 2000 carries as its motto a sentence written in Xam, preserving the nineteenth-century orthography of the notebooks to record its various clicks.5

Morans approach, however, is suspicious of the “historically sedimented figuration” of the Bushmen as “exemplary indigenes” (8), and much of his book seeks to show Bleeks “contribution to, and appropriation by, racial thinking” (15), suggesting that this feted scholar of African languages (and populariser of the descriptor “Bantu”) should also be seen as the country’s first systematic theoriser of cultural difference. It is offered, he remarks, as a corrective to those studies of racism that pay no attention to the links between linguistic theory and cultural essentialism.

The first chapters seek to place the figure of the colonial intellectual like Bleek within the context of European knowledge production, and then to probe the “politico-cultural consequences” buried within the abstruse terminology and strenuous comparativism of his On the Origin (a work always underwritten, one senses, by the infrastructural and intellectual networks of the British Empire). The later sections turn to portions of the Xam narratives finally published in Bleek and Lloyd’s Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911) and their afterlives in the work of poets like Antjie Krog, Pippa Skotnes and Stephen Watson: “the literary appropriation of Bleek’s research,” Moran suggests, “has involved jettisoning the linguistic theory that drove and structured that comprehension” (118).6

Now anyone working in the fields of South African literary, historical or cultural studies knows that monographs deconstructing the figure of “the Bushman” lie thick on the ground; indeed the rock art researcher David Lewis-Williams, quoted in these pages, remarks that it constitutes an academic industry all of its own (29). Following scores of journal articles as well as disturbing, documentary accounts like Robert Gordon’s The Bushman Myth: the Making of a Namibian Underclass (1992), one sometimes wonders what more can be said on the matter.7

A scholar whose approach overlaps to some extent with that of Moran is Andrew Bank, beginning with a similar scepticism towards too easy a notion of cultural exchange. His finely detailed 2006 account of the making of the collection, Bushmen in a Victorian World,8 begins by examining Bleek’s proximity to the racist social Darwinism of Haeckel, and by interrogating an anecdotal narrative (fostered by Laurens van der Post and more recently by poets like Watson and Krog) of how the Xam and !Kung narrators lived in makeshift huts in the garden of the Bleek and Lloyd household, collaborating in a spirit of reciprocal translation and mutual empathy. Yet despite it having attained the status of “an almost taken-for-granted historical ‘fact’ in existing scholarly accounts,” there was, wrote Bank in 2002, little evidence to support this vision of an ideal exchange of words for things in the colonial garden.9

Although both Bank and Moran begin in a similar sense of discomfort with received notions surrounding the archive, it is interesting to compare the different trajectories of their books. The former moves centripetally, drawing ever closer to the textual trace of notebooks themselves, which are treated more as scripts than transcripts, a thick description of or a “grammar of performance” within this nineteenth-century colonial household which allows us to see the intimacies, but also the frustrations, false starts, misrecognitions and fraught personal contexts which frame this late nineteenth-century encounter. Intriguingly, it is one which Bank, though extremely wary of creeping sentimentality, comes to see as remarkable nonetheless: “Without romanticising the motivations of the researchers or the life histories of the informants, we can recognize that their ability to sustain a decade of dialogue is without precedent in the history of this country and perhaps that of the world” (397).

Moran’s work, by contrast, spins itself out centrifugally toward Nietzsche and Marx, Hegel, Heidegger, Horkheimer and all the usual European suspects. We meet Derrida on page six and Spivak shortly after, but only encounter the shaman and master narrator Kabbo on page 125, while Lucy Lloyd (who, as Bank and Skotnes have shown, played a crucial role in eliciting the most personal and compelling narratives from the “givers of native literature”) is barely mentioned. Instead, several chapters are given over to Bleek’s Origin, and here Moran’s prose becomes a kind of high theoretical performance act which, when read from contemporary South Africa, can feel a little out of date, and out of place. Why such a reaching back to the era of high theory, one might ask, when such a subject might allow one to evolve concepts and methods from within a much more local archive? In reading pages of sentences like “The possibility of self-sufficiency, the punctual immediacy of spontaneity, is dependent upon a certain elsewhere outside of self-origination that threatens the purity of its autonomy” (43), one is reminded of the difficulties that haunt such high-level postcolonial critiques. Their very style, and the continual recourse to the high priests of metropolitan theory, perhaps risks reconfirming the very gulf that they set out to critique, reinstating a gap between European knowledge systems and African materials, and spiralling ever further away from their ostensible object of enquiry.

Despite the title, then, the book is less about “Representing Bushmen” than a particular chapter in the history of European thought, one which found the assorted indigenes then being encountered and anthropologically categorised all over the world particularly useful for its own purposes. Perhaps the most valuable and salutary part of Moran’s approach is the attention it gives to Bleek’s complex placement as a well-connected intellectual in the Cape Colony, and the way it shows how an increasing nineteenth-century interest in the antiquity of “sex-denoting” Bushman languages entailed a demotion of southern Africa’s “Bantu” (especially Xhosa) cultures which coincided neatly with the colonial politics of his patrons (among them governor George Grey). The Bushmen, Bleek wrote, were “poetical in their ideas, with an extensive mythological traditionary literature.” The Bantu peoples were “addicted to ancestor worship, speaking euphonious polysyllabic Prefix-pronomial languages, eminently prosaic in their ideas and literature.”10

If South Africa is a country whose “textured postcoloniality” combines the colonial histories of, say, Australia and Nigeria,11 then Moran’s approach helps to show how it is a site which offers up not one but multiple versions of indigeneity, and that these variants – from Bleek’s philology to Mbeki’s African Renaissance – have often been placed in competition or used for different political ends.

Finally, the advertisement reproduced at the end of the book – from the Mail & Guardian newspaper of 28 April 2000 – is a sobering reminder that for all the cautionary academic criticism about the use and abuse of such an archive, the image of “the Bushmen” still circulates in popular culture as a virtual tabula rasa on which to project the desires and agendas of industrial modernity. A spread from the South African Coal, Oil, and Gas Corporation (SASOL) shows Lucy Lloyd superimposed over a group of nameless San individuals in skins; a paragraph compares her foresight and “vision” with that of the corporation: “Driving Africa to even greater heights. Like Mapungubwe and other African civilizations” (148). If an oil company (and one founded to ensure South African energy security when economic sanctions were imposed against the apartheid state) can use the Xam records for its own purposes, then what?


1. F. Max Müller, Lectures on the Science of Language, (London: Longman, 1862), p. 25.

2. W. H. I. Bleek and L. C. Lloyd, Preface to Specimens of Bushman Folklore, (London: George Allen and Company, 1911), p. x.

3. A large part of the archive, including all the Xam and !Kung notebooks, was scanned and placed online by Pippa Skotnes between 2005 and 2007. See “The Digital Bleek and Lloyd”:

4. Shane Moran, “Specimens of ‘Bushman’ Studies,” Wasafiri 16:34 (2001), pp. 46-51 and “Customs and Beliefs of Bleek and Lloyd Scholarship,” Kronos: Journal of Cape History 32 (2005), p. 214-222.

5. !ke e:xarra ke is officially translated as “Unity in Diversity”; glossed more carefully from a language no longer spoken by any living South African, it can be rendered as: “people who are different come together.”

6. Antjie Krog, die sterre sê “tsau” / the stars say “tsau” (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2004); Pippa Skotnes, Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen, (University of Cape Town Press, 1996) and Claim to the Country: the Archive of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd. (Johannesburg: Jacana; Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007); Stephen Watson, Return of the Moon: Versions from the xam (Cape Town: The Carrefour Press, 1991).

7. Robert Gordon, The Bushman Myth: the Making of a Namibian Underclass, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992).

8. Andrew Bank, Bushmen in a Victorian World: the Remarkable Story of the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of Bushman Folklore, (Cape Town: Double Storey, 2006).

9. Andrew Bank, “From Pictures to Performance: Early Learning at The Hill,” Kronos: Journal of Cape History, 28, (2002), p. 66-101.

10. W. H. I. Bleek, “Report Regarding Photographs” [1871] rep. in Bleek and Lloyd, Bushman Folklore, p. 435.

11. David Attwell, Rewriting Modernity: Studies in Black South African Literary History, (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2005), p. 1.