What a rich language Setswana is!

23 Aug 2018

We still need to dig the roots of the Setswana language some more. We know that maize has its roots in the Americas and came into Africa by Portuguese traders in the 1500s to the 1600s through Mozambique into South Africa. Linguistic evidence demonstrates that maize is not indigenous to Africa. All this is reflected in the name for maize in many African languages. In the Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia maize is called yabaher mashela which means grain from the sea. In Chichewa, maize is chimanga (a term also used in Kalanga) which means from the coast. In Swahili maize is muhindi which means a grain from India. Speakers of Kikongo call maize maza mamputo which means white people’s grain. In Mande, maize is tuba-nyo which means a white people’s grain. In Setswana the word mmidi would have come into the Setswana language sometimes after 1700. It is derived from the Afrikaans word for maize, meilie. A single grain of maize, which in Setswana is called pidi, comes from the Afrikaans word pit. From the Afrikaans kaboe meilies Setswana has derived the word kabu which refers to boiled maize grains. It is clear that linguistic evidence, together with history and some archaeology, can bring some important insight into the patterns of the lives of our people. For instance it can reveal that the Batswana’s method of choice for killing was stabbing because of the linguistic remnants of tlhaba that litter the Setswana linguistic terrain. The very act of fighting or battling in Setswana between individuals we call it go tlhabana (which literally means to reciprocally stab each other). The linguistic evidence therefore suggests that historically to battle involved stabbing as an integral part of battle. Now the element of stabbing is no longer central to Setswana battles, as battles or fights take a variety of styles. Nevertheless, even with no stabbing involved, to fight is still called go tlhabana. From the verb tlhaba we get a noun form referring to a battle. A fight or a battle is tlhabano (a reciprocal stabbing). To fight someone is also known as go tlhabantsha which is also used mean to meet or to cut through. The word for a battle ground in Setswana is also derived from the verb tlhaba. It is known as matlhabanelo. In Kanye there is still a place called Matlhabanelo (a place of stabbings), where previously heated battles had ensued.

There have been clear cases of semantic extension where the name of one entity has been extended to mean some elated new entity. For instance the words tlhobolo (gun) and lerumo (bullet) are old words which predate the coming a gun amongst the Batswana. The word tlhobolo used to mean a quiver for arrows. This meaning is archaic and no longer used. The term has been semantically extended to mean a gun. The word lerumo also used to mean a spear and it is now used to mean a bullet. The word tshane which is now common amongst the Bangwaketse as a surname has also fallen off from usage. It used to mean a broad-bladed spear or sharpened stick used by herdboys. The name Tshosa, common amongst Ngwato royalty is sometimes mistaken to mean to scare off or to intimidate, while it has an archaic meaning of a long spear with large blade.

There has been some interest in etymology in MLA Kgasa’s Thanodi ya Setswana ya dikole (Kgasa, 1976); Dikišinare ya Setswana English Afrikaans (Snyman et al, 1990); Thanodi ya Setswana (Kgasa & Tsonope, 1995) and English-Setswana-English (Matumo, 1993). Kgasa (1976) traces a word to the language of origin but does not give its etymon (a word in the source language). He has 239 headwords marked with etymology. Snyman et al (1990) just like Kgasa (1976) marks the source language of the etymon (the word), but does not give the etymon. Kgasa and Tsonope (1995) do not include any etymological markup in the dictionary. Matumo (1993) marks words as being of foreign origin (FOR) but doesn’t mark the source language or the etymon.

Historically Setswana has been, and currently is, in contact with Afrikaans, English, other local and regional languages (e.g. Zulu) languages. It is important that a dictionary must attempt to capture the degree of lexical influence from these languages in its pages. As a growing language, Setswana has been creating numerous words through a variety of word formation processes such as coining, blending etc. It is critical that the origins of such terms are preserved within the pages of a monolingual dictionary. The latest monolingual dictionary Tlhalosi ya Medi ya Setswana traces the etymology of over 10% of the entries. While this is a welcome development, much of the etymology   information relates to borrowed terms. For instance the word jeme is traced to the English word jam. Other entries such as names of months have elaborate etymology where words are traced to other words and practices in the Setswana culture. For instance the word Firikgong which is traced to the dove mofiri which builds its nest using small pieces of word dikgong. The etymology therefore reads as follows: Kgwedi e e reilwe ka lephoi la mofiri kgotsa kofiri le le a beng le sela dikgonnyana, le aga sentlhaga, go tla le simolola go baya mae. Ka go nna jalo leina le le tswa mo go mofiri le dikgong.

One of the privileges of being a lexicographer is that you tend to find out language issues which other people take for granted. In the past few years I have gained much fascination from the history of words, that is, where they come from. The Setswana that we speak has gone through much change over the years. Some of the changes, perhaps the most obvious ones, are those which come from language contact. Setswana has had contact with English, Afrikaans, Kalanga and other regional languages. There is a need to preserve these changes in dictionaries so that those who come after us will understand some old texts and also understand who they are. Many personal names are fossilized nouns of old which are no longer used in daily discourse. There is therefore a need to dig the lost meanings of our words and store them in our dictionaries for the benefit of researchers and our children.