We are Batswana; they call us Batswanan

02 Dec 2015

The year was 1999. I had just enrolled into the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology & Phonetics on Walton Street at the University of Oxford as a graduate student reading Comparative Linguistics and Philology. A walk from Lincoln College on Turl Street, took me past Balliol College, where Sir Seretse Khama was a student, to a busy bookshop at the end of Broad Street, the street on which Christian heretics were burnt at the stake. I purchased a number of linguistics books including an imposing desk dictionary bearing the title: The New Oxford Dictionary of English edited by Judy Pearsall. This dictionary was later to be known in lexicographic circles by its acronym: NODE. It was when inspecting the NODE that I first came in contact with the adjective Botswanan. I immediately wrote a letter to the Oxford University Press pointing out this error. I argued that the appropriate adjective was Tswana as in Tswana chicken or Tswana people and that the people preferred to be called Batswana (plural) and Motswana (singl) while the language is known as Setswana. A response came from Mr. Angus Stevenson, one of the Associate Editors, a few days later thanking me for the correspondence and giving me corpus evidence of Botswanan which guided the Oxford lexicographers to lemmatize Botswanan. Stevenson’s response did not placate me. I wrote back querying the corpus design: junk in, junk out. He wrote back defending the Oxford corpus. I cursed and gave up! This confrontation with Stevenson was to later influence the trajectory of my PhD. I investigated corpus design for lexicography and wrote a PhD thesis: Corpus design for Setswana lexicography. This week three colleagues drew my attention to an article: Botswanan or Batswana? It’s complicated by Sitinga Kachipande which brought back the memories of my encounter with Oxford lexicographers. Sitinga Kachipande observes that “According to Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, the correct English term for nationals from Botswana is Botswanan. Therefore, it’s the preferred term by editors and writers worldwide.” This is false and betrays a weak understanding of how lexicographers lemmatize entries. Modern lexicography, very much like much of the linguistic field, is principally descriptive and not prescriptive. It doesn’t make any claim that “the correct English term for nationals from Botswana is Botswanan.” The references both of Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, to which Kachipande refers nowhere do they claim that “the correct English term for nationals from Botswana is Botswanan” as Kachipande claims. The online Oxford dictionary that he references only gives Botswanan as a derivative with no definition or commentary. So the lexicographic argument by Kachipande fails, not just because it is clumsy but largely because it fabricates lexicographic evidence. 

From here he develops an Onomastics argument laced with Setswana morphology. He argues: “The majority of nationals from Botswana prefer the use of the complicated term Batswana. The addition of “Ba” meaning “the people of”, seemingly implies that everyone in Bostwana (sic) is Tswana. This makes it a term loaded with problematic histories of colonialism, exclusion and ethnic relations.” There is nothing complicated about the term Batswana. It is understood to be polysemous between “a citizen of Botswana” and “a member of the Tswana ethnic group”. A similar comparison with the word English can be made. Kachipande is wrong therefore in claiming that “Colloquially, all these ethnic groups (Tswana, Kalanga, Batswapong, Babirwa, Basarwa, Bayei, Hambukushu, Basubia, Baherero and Bakgalagadi people) are referred to as Batswana. However, applying the term Batswana to them is misleading.” There is nothing colloquial in the application of the term Batswana in this case and such meaning is not applied haphazardly. It is formal and not colloquial. The label Batswana in this case is not applied to any Tswana, Kalanga, Batswapong, Babirwa, Basarwa, Bayei, Hambukushu, Basubia, Baherero and Bakgalagadi people. It is applied specifically to those who are citizens of the country Botswana. In this application, no ambiguity exists. 

Kachipande then asks the question: “Who then is Tswana?” His proffers an answer: “It is used to describe the North Sotho, West Sotho, Sotho, and Pedi ethnic groups who have a similar culture and speak the same language.” Kachipande is here again too generous to include the Sotho group which isn’t Tswana. Northern Sotho group (also known as Bapedi) as well as Basotho (Southern) found in Lesotho and around Bloemfontein while historically & linguistically related to the Tswana are not Tswana. He is therefore right in the development of his article that Batswana are, “Culturally,…. arguably more similar to the Pedi and Sotho in South Africa then (sic) they are to some ethnic groups within Botswana.” It becomes clear as you read Kachipande’s article that the central thesis is this: Should the citizens of Botswana be called Batswana and should the country of Botswana, with its multiculturalism be called Botswana?” He provides his answer: 

Botswana does not constitute a homogenous nation with a single language or culture. Therefore, the term Batswana should not be an umbrella term for all of the people within Botswana’s borders which include non-Tswana groups who have a different culture and may speak their own language. Additionally, anyone speaking the Setswana language should not be considered Batswana because this dominant language needed to function in contemporary Botswana where 26 languages are spoken. Therefore, an ability to speak a language doesn’t make a person the ethnicity of the people from which that language derived. As an example, the ability of the Khoi-San to speak Setswana does not technically make them West Sotho nor (sic) Batswana.

There is nothing ambiguous or problematic with the label Batswana. Kachipande makes the following presupposition: For the country of Botswana to qualify to be named Botswana, its population must be formed by a homogenous Tswana ethnic group with a single language and culture. However there is no assumption of homogeneity in the term Batswana. It has never existed. Anyone who has studied the composition of the Tswana merafe knows that there is no assumed homogeneity within a Tswana morafe and yet there are Bangwato, Bangwaketse, Bakwena or Bakgatla. For instance amongst the Bangwaketse there are Batloung, Bangwato, Bakgatla, Bahurutshe and other groupings with over 10 totems having been identified as part of the Bangwaketse morafe. The Batswana have always been inclusive of bafaladi or those from elsewhere. They have largely identified such individuals who have settled amongst them as part of themselves. They have in general not marginalised them their general society. This has also happened amongst other groups, for instance there are Kalanga of Pedi origin who now identify themselves fully as Kalanga. 

The terminology matter that Kachipande grapples with is really not peculiar to the term Batswana. It is a matter faced by the term English, Swati or Chinese. There are individuals who identify themselves as English although they are Caribbean or South African. By identifying as English is not to claim cultural homogeneity. It is also not to claim Anglo-Saxon roots. So the onomastic contention fails as crafted by Kachipande. The word Motswana, like the word English, is polysemous between the citizen of a country and the native speaker of a language. All citizens of Botswana are called Batswana. All members of the Tswana ethnic group whether they are citizens of Botswana or not are Batswana. The word Botswanan on the other hand is an English/American way of referring to citizens of Botswana. I will not argue with it, after all I refer to all sorts of people as Mafora, makgoa, Mantariana, Magerika and Maarabea, terms which they don’t use to refer to themselves. The question: “Should the country of Botswana be called Botswana and should her citizens be called Batswana?” is an old and open question which has been a subject of much heated and hostile debate. The debates around the question are the subject of an old paper by Prof. John Makgala. Those who don’t want to be called Batswana have a right to object, but they must do so without mixing the polysemous meanings of the word Batswana.