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30 Nov 2018

One of the finest statistical linguists and philologists was George Kingsley Zipf. He was a Harvard based linguist whose major interest was statistical linguistic distributions. He developed what has now become known as Zipf’s law. Its claim is that while only a few words are used very often, many or most are used rarely. He demonstrated that in language the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc. Let’s illustrate this with a Setswana language database which has over 15 million words. The most frequent Setswana word is a; it occurs 950,475, next is go (576,925), then le (496,955), then e (494,132), ba (435,251) etc. Statistical linguistics has been found to be critical to areas of study such as lexicography, genre analysis and lemmatization. Another contribution by Zipf is on the relationship between frequency and word length. He argued that words which are used most often are shorter than the rarely used ones (e.g. the choice between now and immediately). Zipf believed that the relationship between word length and frequency of use, stemmed from an impulse to minimize the time and effort needed for speaking and writing, as it means we use more short words than long ones. This is the same with what people generally do with smses. In the interest of time and economy people tend to use shorter words and abbreviations.

I introduce Zipf here for the purpose of talking about shortening of Setswana names. While it is true that we tend to shorten any name the more we use it; such as Gabs for Gaborone, F/Town for Francistown, KY for Kanye, and Johannesburg to Joburg to Jozi this column will consider the Setswana personal names, since they are mutilated and bastardized probably more than any other cluster of names in the language. Setswana personal names are incredibly beautiful. They reflect a society’s beliefs and complex cultural system, a family’s hopes or despair. In the personal names are embedded social pains and petty neighbourly gossips. Therefore the Zipfian style of shortening Setswana personal names and anglicising them in the process robs these names their cultural relevance and beauty. For many years Batswana have been shortening their names following the Setswana morphology. So the name Kedibone was shortened to Lebo, Kagiso to Nkagi, Kelebogile to Kele or Lebo, Motlalepula to Motlale, Onkemetse to Nkemi, Olebogeng to Lebo, and Masego to Sego. This system of shortening names followed word formation patterns of Setswana. Technically speaking, linguistic students would say the names structure did not violate Setswana phonotactics. However, the trend for shortening Setswana names has changed dramatically. Now the names are shortened in a manner that violates Setswana word structure and instead the names have now become anglicised. For instance, the beautiful name Kealeboga “I am thankful” is shortened to Kelly and Kelly is further shortened to Curls or Kells. Diphetogo “changes” is shortened to Dipsy; Mosenodi “one who reveals” to Moss; Dimakatso “wonders” to Diks; Baboloki “those who save” to Babs; Mooketsi “one who increases” to Moks; Kefilwe “I have been offered” to Kef; Reetsang “listen” to a dog’s name Rex; Duduetsa “rejoice” to Duds; Dumelang “believe/agree/Hello!” to Dums; Bonang “behold/see” to Bonnie; Batsholele “serve them” or Batsile “they have arrived” to creepy Bats; Rasepatela “the hospital man” to Russ; Maburunyane “little boers” to Brooks; Lesego “blessing, luck” to Lesh; Boitumelo “happiness/joy” to B2 and Kenonofile “I am strong” to Ken.

It is incredibly sad that such a linguistic and intangible heritage of the Setswana language is daily under assault from anglicization and truncation. When one is called Curls instead of Kealeboga or Moks instead of Mooketsi, the cultural wealth of the Setswana language is lost. The story that lies behind the name also gets concealed and vanishes. There is therefore a need to discover the Setswana personal names and call them as they were initially given or shorten them in line with Setswana word formation rules. Such a practice will preserve the language and restore dignity to the integrity of the language and its speakers.

However, the Setswana names have been facing other challenges of anglicization which are not necessarily related to their shortening. For instance, a beautiful name such as Mpho “gift/present” which has a single syllable is usually replaced by a not so attractive two syllable name Poster. Some Setswana names have been replaced by their closest English translations such as Ramontsho replaced by Blackie; Marole replaced by Dust, and Kgomotso by Comfort.

When people lose their names, they lose part of their identity individually and collectively as a speech community. A part of who they are is chipped away and over time it is forgotten and vanishes away. The stories and the histories embedded in the names are washed by anglicization and name truncation. It usually starts as a pleasant joke of how to render one’s name in a western style. Sometimes it starts as a nickname given by friends. Then like a tick it sticks. It becomes part of the social fabric – that all the Mphos are Posters! Time passes and then the tradition of giving beautiful names vanishes. Then names such as Curls, Poster, Moks and Bats become part of social fabric. The threat is real, though it is not obvious because the change is slow and pleasant, lacking in any kind of compulsion. Sadly parents have become complicit in destroying a part of their heritage. Whether the tide will turn against this practice in our life time it isn’t clear. What is clear though is once lost, the culture of beautiful Setswana names may be difficult to recover.

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