UCT student’s mission to preserve ancient San language through mobile tech

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The culture and language of South Africa’s original ancient inhabitants, the San people, is slowly fading away. In a bid to preserve it for future generations, a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has turned to digital archives and mobile tech.

Nigerian native, Sunkanmi Olaleye, who is studying computer science at UCT, is the creator of a mobile text entry service called Xamobile. |Xam is a Khoisan language and falls under the ǃkwi language group.

Olaleye teamed up with the Bleek and Lloyd Collection to access the digital library’s |Xam archives that date back to the 19th century for the Xamobile project, which is part of a crowdsourcing initiative by the collection.

“Xamobile compares different custom mobile text-entry techniques for the |Xam language, which may be encoded as about 35 000 unique and complete characters. These consist of single characters or combinations of two to three, with diacritics (marks added to a letter to distinguish it in some way) appearing above characters, below characters and sometimes in both places,” Olaleye explained to the UCT newsroom.

“Many descendants of the San people may not have computers at home. But most people have a mobile phone. It’s a great way for San descendants to become familiar with the language, and to learn it,” he added.

According to Olaleye, San students at the university were quite keen on the project when they learned about it.

“So many languages in Africa are becoming extinct. There’s this craving for English, at the expense of our own cultural heritage. We’re hoping that Xamobile will help to preserve and revive languages such as |Xam, which used to be spoken in the Western Cape. Preserving languages – emblems of identity – is vital in saving cultural wealth and important ancestral knowledge,” he said.

Read more about the Xamobile project on the UCT website.

[Image – CC by SA 2.5]