It was an epiphany of great magnitude in a huge grocery store. I was directly confronted by an old man. He did his standard 6 in the 50s ÔÇô I will not disclose his name, the name of his former school or the region from which he comes. His attack was two pronged. He accused me of promoting minority languages at the expense of Setswana.
Now that is a first since I am usually accused by many of promoting Setswana language over local minority languages. At that very point ÔÇô at that very moment, I knew that I was approaching the language question fairly and in a balanced manner. The second fear of the old man was that I was arguing for the destruction of unique Setswana language varieties and bundling all varieties as if they were identical. I do think that the old man had a point. In my writings about Setswana, especially on this column, I have approached Setswana as a single language and barely dealt with its varieties. That was not a mistake. We generally speak of a language without referring to its various lexical shades, whether it is English, Setswana, Zulu or Kalanga. So this column is dedicated to the worried old man from the 40s and addresses the need to preserve the unique characteristics of Setswana varieties.
It is a truism that Setswana exists in multiple varieties ÔÇô whose speakers generally despise each others’ unique characteristics. From various parts of South Africa to Kanye, Mochudi and Serowe, Setswana is spoken in a range of varieties. Differences found in a single language on account of region are known in linguistics as regional dialects. Regional dialects expose themselves through the vocabulary, grammatical habits, and pronunciations found in a particular region. Dialects are a result of some kind of border. The borders could be national borders as the ones that separate Botswana from South Africa. They could also be because of a mountain range, a river, or a forbidding distance between speakers of a language. In certain instances the borders could be more complex. They could be a consequence of class, age, education, profession or sex. Because of the physical separation between South Africa and Botswana, the two Setswana speaking communities have slowly developed unique words and meanings.
For instance take the following Setswana words which are uniquely South African: molaotheo, bommasepala, poresidente, diporofense, khomi?ene, rephaboliki, demokerasi, and dit?helete. Additionally, in South African Setswana “naga” means “country” whilst the same word is used in Botswana to refer to forest, wilderness or bush. This is not to claim that the two languages are not mutually intelligible; far from it.
Actually there are more similarities than differences between the two varieties. The South African variety has also continued to borrow from Afrikaans while Setswana in Botswana has ceased to do so, precisely because Setswana in Botswana is rarely in contact with Afrikaans while the South African variety is.
Setswana in Botswana is also not a homogeneous entity. Much literature has been devoted to the differentiating characteristics of Setswana varieties.
Sengwaketse is well distinguished by the “tj…” sound instead of the typical Setswana ‘k’. Therefore instead of Ke ne ke ile they would say Tje ne tje ile. This particular way of speaking is especially common amongst older members of the community. However, with recent mimicking and lampooning of this unique way of Sengwaketse speech more and more Bangwaketse have either denied that they do speak in this manner or have modified their speech so that they no longer speak in this manner. There are also unique lexical items which are uniquely Sengwaketse such as loswao, setoromeisi, perepetsha, sekgawane and serokana.
Bakgatla are fairly well-known for their use of ‘ge’, ‘fa’, ‘mmolopita’ and ‘mo?ianyana’. Sengwato dialect is well-known for its ‘t’ where other Setswana dialects use ‘tl’ and ‘th’ where other dialects use ‘tlh’. This has led to a distinction between ta and tla, tlhaka and thaka. These differences are especially pronounced in speech more than in writing although increasingly Bangwato students or writers sometimes get confused with where to use ‘tl’ and ‘tlh’. Sometimes the ‘tl’ is used wrongly as in cases of where certain students write ‘tlau’ instead of ‘tau’, or ‘tlapole’ instead of ‘tapole’.
Bangwato also have unique terms such as phoisane, and leswao.
Since Setswana is a national language and there has been a drive to standardize the language, there is a real danger that the different varieties of Setswana may lose their distinct qualities. Additionally, with the recent expressions by certain members of the society to develop and protect minority languages from disappearing, focus may be lost from protecting the distinct Setswana varieties from disappearing.
When such differences are lost, so will the unique flavour of Setswana. Making fun of varieties of Setswana should therefore be taken seriously. They are not a laughing matter. Jokes have been used before to sustain racisms and prejudice. They should therefore be taken seriously whenever they are used against a Setswana variety.