Medi Publishing launches the largest Setswana dictionary
by The Linguist Chair
It happens this Thursday, July 12th, appropriately at the University of Botswana, the highest institution of learning in the land; an institution built on the contributions of the peasants in possession of hope for a better tomorrow for their sons and daughters; and the sons and daughters of their sons and daughters. The launch happens in a fitting place that is the University of Botswana Library Auditorium: an embodiment of the university’s body of research and learning. It is not every year that we welcome a new Setswana dictionary. Our monolingual Setswana dictionary tradition is actually very recent. It began in Kanye in 1976 with the work of a school master and a grammarian. His initials are more well-known than his complete name. It began with the work of MLA:
Morulaganyi Lochinvar Andrew Kgasa; a man born in Kanye on April 16th 1914; a man who died in August 10th 2001. He had toiled for ten years to complete the very first monolingual Setswana dictionary, bringing memories of that overweight English lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, who described a lexicographer as a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. Kgasa called his Setswana dictionary Thanodi ya Setswana ya dikole. The second Setswana dictionary came 22 years later after the first. It was published in 1998 by Longman Publishers. It was compiled by MLA Kgasa together with Joseph Tsonope, one of the best minds this country has ever produced. The dictionary was an impressive piece of lexicographic work standing at 330 pages. They called it Thanodi ya Setswana. This dictionary has been used extensively in Botswana schools and has inspired other lexicographic works elsewhere. The Medi dictionary therefore comes about 14 years since the last dictionary was compiled and published in Botswana. Language changes fast, particularly as a result of modern technology. Since 1998, many words have been nativised, while others like vuvuzela have made it into the language overnight. The need for a Setswana dictionary therefore cannot be overemphasized. The importance of dictionaries is sometimes ill-understood. For Setswana 1875: Brown’s (1875) compilation of the English-Setswana dictionary was the first dictionary of its nature in sub-Saharan Africa which legitimized the Setswana language when many indigenous languages were considered barbaric and at best exotic. Kgasa’s (1976) monolingual dictionary (small as it was) defined the language as an autonomous entity that could define itself using its own complex lexicon.
It can therefore be observed that: first, dictionaries are more than linguistic entities; they are also political entities, for they indirectly pronounce on what is, not only in terms of a language, but also in terms of the lexicon. Second, dictionaries are cultural repositories. They document a group’s linguistic journeys. They are a knowledge base of a people; a documentation of borrowings and a language’s ingenuity in creating terms to represent thoughts and a world view. Third dictionaries bring clarity to the semantics of words, phrases and cultural idiomaticity. They clarify definitions and lexical relations that exist in a language. Richard Chenevix Trench of the Philological Society, London, defines a dictionary as “an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view; and the wrong ways into which a language has wandered or been disposed to wander, may be nearly as instructive as the right ones in which it has traveled: as much as may be learned, or nearly as much from its failures as from its success, from its follies as from its wisdom.” He also observed that “A dictionary….is an inventory of the language… It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray. The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad, whether they do or do not commend themselves to his judgment, which, with certain exceptions hereafter to be specified, those writing in the language have employed. He is an historian of it not a critic… There is a constant confusion here in men’s minds. There are many who conceive of a Dictionary as though it had this function, to be a standard of the language; and the pretensions to be this which the French Dictionary of the Academy sets up, may have helped this confusion. It is nothing of the kind.” Trench was right; a dictionary must contain all the words of a language without prejudice.
The latest Setswana dictionary does precisely this. It documents both colloquial and formal Setswana and uses style marks to separate colloquialisms. It represents the lexical variety of Setswana in a manner that hasn’t been attempted previously. Dialectal variations, such as Sengwaketse, Sengwato, Sekgatla and others as well as terms from the South African Setswana speaking community are equally documented with dialectal marks. The dictionary has over 1,500 idiomatic expressions. For the first time, the Setswana dictionary also has full phonemic transcriptions with tonal markings. It also has full etymological information. Borrowed words are therefore traced to their roots, either to Zulu, Kalanga, English or Afrikaans. Also a first is a frequency band which shows which words are rare or frequent in the language. This is a result of lexical statistics brought to bare on a 15million Setswana corpus. There is also lexical synonymy in the dictionary which links synonyms together or links idiomatic expressions to other dictionary headwords. Another impressive feature of the dictionary is its central part; lexicographically called the dictionary middle matter which in some detail discusses issues such as punctuation, time in Setswana, the importance of rain and the cow to a Motswana. This dictionary is the first dictionary from Medi Publishing and is set to revolutionize Setswana lexicography. For a local publisher, Medi must be commended for taking a gamble on contributing to the development and promotion of the national language. One thing does bring hope to the development of the Setswana language, and that is its selection for development by the Academy of African Languages, a languages arm of the African Union. This dictionary therefore contributes in part to the large plan of the African Union to develop African languages.