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Life is strange – strange indeed. Professor Desmond Cole is dead. I received the news on Monday August 6th, 2018 from a friend about his passing. A short one line note about his death appears on the University of the Witwatersrand alumni page. No he didn’t die recently. He died quietly on May 25th, 2018 away from the public eye and pomp. How does one who has done so much for Setswana linguistics, lexicography and botany slip away quietly from the wider academic community, his international admirers and friends.
I first came in contact with the seminal work of DT Cole as a University of Botswana undergraduate. At the time I was reading for a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities and was taking classes in French, African Languages and Literature and English. His work that towers all is An Introduction to Tswana Grammar (Longman: Cape Town, 1955) which for over sixty years has remained the definitive text on Setswana morphology. The fact that the text was his MA thesis (1952) under the supervision of the celebrated Bantuist Professor Clement Doke is most remarkable. Cole was appointed Professor and Head of Department at an impressive age of 32. He retired from the University at the end of 1982 having contributed extensively to Bantu studies.
I first met Professor DT Cole during the editorial stage of the Macmillan Setswana and English Illustrated Dictionary (2011) which he authored with Lally Moncho-Warren. Our meeting was in Johannesburg at the Royal Bafokeng Holdings (RBH) around 2010. I was brought in by the RBH to advise on some lexicographic and orthographic issues of the dictionary. Some of the controversial issues included the spelling of words that appeared in the draft dictionary such as mpsa ‘dog’, mpshe ‘ostrich’, mpsheretlhe ‘longbilled bird’ and others. These words’ spelling violated modern Setswana orthography of both Botswana and South Africa. The spellings were not a mistake on the side of Cole. He believed Setswana was supposed to be written in that manner and stubbornly maintained a spelling system which didn’t occur in Setswana orthographies. Other issues included the stem based approach used by DT Cole. To illustrate, in the dictionary the word selepe ‘axe’ is entered as –lepe under the [L] part of the dictionary. So if you looked for selepe under [S] you wouldn’t find it and you may think that the dictionary had left the word out completely. The words mola ‘line’, bola ‘divining bones’ or lela ‘intestine’ are all entered in the dictionary as -la under [L]. This stem-based approach has been condemned by many members of the African Association for Lexicography as not user friendly since it expects the user to possess an advanced knowledge of Setswana/Bantu morphology. The stem based approach is theoretically interesting and lumps related words together. But DT Cole believed in a stem based system of entering words in a dictionary. One of his earlier publications Setswana-Animals and Plants is also stem based. While in the foreword of this dictionary, L.W. Lanham notes that “[t]he author of this remarkable book eschews the label “dictionary” for it, preferring to identify it as a “lesser listing of vocabulary” (Cole 1995: ix) the work is a specialised bilingual dictionary, Setswana to English and English to Setswana with some of the entries included with their Latin names. The dictionary is published by the Botswana Society and is the first of its kind.
The Macmillan Setswana and English Illustrated Dictionary represents a considerable amount of work and is the largest English Setswana dictionary. The dictionary is ‘intended for use by scholars and teachers at tertiary level, and in libraries’. The editor in chief of this dictionary, Mr Mareme is also probably right that ‘Learners in the new South African education system, especially those studying Life Sciences, Physics and Chemistry, will find this dictionary invaluable.’ The dictionary has a large collection of animals and plants names. This is not surprising since Des Cole has done some impressive work before on the Setswana plants and animals. This Setswana-English dictionary is a welcome development in the history of Setswana lexicography. Since 1875 less than 10 Setswana dictionaries have been compiled. This dictionary functions not only to document the Setswana language but also to provide a ready resource for many language research projects. There is no doubt that Des Cole’s contribution to the language is significant. What is perhaps surprising is that he didn’t produce this dictionary earlier.
To observe that Prof Cole has had an illustrious career as a linguist is an understatement. That he has stretched his research into the muddy waters of lexicography and botany is most impressive.
Professor Desmond Cole was born in Mafikeng on October 3rd, 1922 and was raised in Bechuanaland amongst the Barolong. He came from a humble family of cattle farmers who irked a living raising and selling cattle as well as keeping a village store. He matriculated at Christian Brother College in Kimberley in 1938. He was married to Naureen who contributed drawings to the dictionary. They spent the last years of Des in Lonehill, north of Johannesburg. The linguistics community has lost a giant. Tonight he sleeps peacefully, the same way he left this earth without any fanfare.