The problem that is cattle colour terminology
by The Linguist Chair
One of the key features of Setswana’s unique indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) is its animal identification system through the lexicalization of animal skin colour terms. By the word lexicalization we mean the creation of distinct words or lexical items instead of having concepts captured by phrases or large explanations.
This means that Setswana has unique terms to refer to colours or combinations of colours. The system of using colour terms to identify animals predates the manual branding as well as the electronic system of cattle identification (bolus ingestion). With individuals owning large herds of cattle, there was pressure on cattle owners to develop a unique system of cattle identification which demanded one to lexicalize many skin colour combinations, develop and lexicalize unique ear marks as well as lexicalize the animal horn shapes. Setswana has therefore generally used three strategies to identify cattle. One is the cattle colour; the second is the horn shape while the last is ear marks. In this column we will focus briefly on colour terms.
We cannot be comprehensive, in part because the subject can get technical and inappropriate for this column, in part because we do need to maintain a degree of brevity. The pleasant thing however is that a few Setswana dictionaries include colour terminology in their back matter. This was pioneered by Kgasa & Tsonope in their dictionary in the back matter. It has been developed by Cole and Moncho Warren in their latest English-Setswana dictionary as part of the centre section of the dictionary.
It is not all Setswana dictionaries which comprise the complex Setswana colour terminology. Kgasa (1976), Matumo’s 1993 English Setswana dictionary, Otlogetswe (2007) and Mareme (2008) lack such terms.
On the academic front much of the literature on colour theory distinguishes between primary and secondary colours. It’s a secondary class material. Primary colours are basic colours that cannot be created by mixing other colours. These are yellow, red and blue. Secondary colours are those colours that are created by mixing primary colours. These are orange, green and purple. Tertiary colours are on the other hand created by mixing secondary colours together.
Some of the people who have studied Setswana colours are Berlin & Kay (1969) who in their study of Setswana colour terminology observe that colour term inventories are drawn from a severely restricted sub-set of all possible inventories. Davies, Corbett, McGurk & Jerrett (1994) in their study of Setswana terms have also observed that Setswana has a composite term botala ‘grue’ (green & blue) “covers the blue and green regions of colour space”.
Semantically and lexicographically these are homographs and not a single term with a broad semantic scope since they are semantically distinct. What this means that although Setswana uses the term tala to identify blue and green. They also observe that Setswana has a basic term for brown. This is true though Setswana has lexicalised shades of brown with terms such as thokwa (dark brown), tshetlha (light brown), khunohu (reddish brown) and others.
Otlogetswe & Bagwasi (2008) in their paper: An analysis of two Setswana colour terms: ntsho & tshweu consider colour terminology within a European mould in which only pure or mixed colours are lexicalized. All these discussions are inadequate in dealing with Setswana terminology since they neglect the unique qualities of colour combinations as well as adjacent colour combinations.
Many African languages lexicalize adjacent colours, something which is not common in European languages. Once this fact is considered, a much more complex colour system in African languages is revealed. To understand Setswana animal colour terms one must therefore consider the following: the sex of the cow, pure colours; the size of the patch as well as the placement of the patch on the skin, mixed and overlapping colours as well as adjacent colours.
The Setswana pure colours are generally not debatable. These are tshweu (white male) tshwaana (white female), ntsho (black male), tshwana (black female), thokwa (dark brown male), thokwana (dark brown female), khunohu (reddish brown male), khunwana (reddish brown female) and a few others.
The difficult arises when you have colours such tlhaba which is a dark colour merging into lighter areas or points such as ears, face, muzzle, top of head, spine, tail, legs, spine, etc. The term is also used to refer to light colour merging into darker areas or points: brown, red, yellow, dun, grey or black with lighter areas or points, or brown, red, yellow, dun or grey with darker areas or points, like most Jersey cattle & Siamese cats (DT Cole).
Other terms used in colour terms are tshega which is a broad belt or band of white around the middle, or a white body and forequarters, with dark hindquarters or hind legs [eg black, brown, yellow, etc]. Another term that is confusing is nkgwe which is the quality of being white-spined, having a narrow strip or a broad stripe of white along the spine or upper back; the rest of the body may be black, brown, red, yellow, etc, and the strip or stripe may be plain white or speckled.
While someone may identify a cow as nkgwe another may identify it as kgwana e botlhabana. There is also a contentious matter of whether what we call colours are really colours. Take the term tshumu. Tshumu refers to a white patch on the forehead of white heard in an animal. Evidently tshumu is really not a colour; instead it refers to the placement of a specific colour in a specific spot.
A dictionary’s definition is insufficient to capture the complexity of Setswana cattle terminology. Since Kgasa and Tsonope (1998), colours have been treated as part of the dictionary middle section or part of the dictionary back matter. Their inclusion as the central or back matter of a dictionary is therefore essential to facilitate their identification and recognition by dictionary users. The challenge however is that not all printing will reproduce the animal colours as seen in the real world. Additionally, there will always be a certain degree of disagreement between the Batswana about Setswana cattle colours. This is in part dialectal; in part it is an argument about whether a patch in a cow is large enough to warrant recognition. Evidently, much needs to be done to document the Setswana cattle/animal terminology in general. Currently this is being undertaken by the Ministry of Agriculture to aid the courts in stock theft cases. When it is done, their research will shed great light into cattle terminology. Knowledge of animal colour terminology is largely fading in what is becoming an increasingly urbanised country and therefore needs to be recorded in dictionaries, taught in schools and used widely in the public domain.