Friday, September 25, 2020

A new Setswana dictionary by Cole and Moncho-Warren

The famous Setswana linguist, Desmond T. Cole and Lally Moncho-Warren have published close to 1200 pages of a Setswana-English, English-Setswana dictionary. It is strangely titled Macmillan Setswana and English Illustrated Dictionary. The strange matter about the title is that it reads as if it is two monolingual dictionaries in one copy. The truth is that it is a Setswana-English and English-Setswana dictionary. The second inelegant matter about the title is the illustrated element as if dictionaries don’t generally have illustrations or that it has more illustrations than any other dictionary. It certainly has some interesting animal illustrations from page 714-720 but the animals do not bear any colour label, save for numbers from 1-70. There are also animal and plants illustrations on the English-Setswana side of the dictionary while there are no illustrations on the Setswana-English side of the dictionary. I met Professor DT Cole during the editorial stage of the work in Johannesburg at the Royal Bafokeng Holdings some two years ago to advise on some lexicographic and orthographic issues in the dictionary. Some of the controversial issues included the spelling of words such as mpsa ‘dog’, mpshe ‘ostrich’, mpsheretlhe ‘longbilled bird’ and others. These words violate modern Setswana orthography of both Botswana and South Africa.

These spellings are not a mistake on the side of the author. They are a result of his belief, that is, he believes Setswana should be written this way. Other issues included the stem based approach used by DT Cole. To explain it, it is better to illustrate what I am saying. In the dictionary the word selepe ‘axe’ is entered as ÔÇôlepe 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 has 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 Association for 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 what use are lumped words if they cannot be found in the first place. But DT Cole believes in a stem based system of entering words in a dictionary. One of his earlier publications Setswana-Animals and Plants is also stem based.

The dictionary will be of interest to language specialists, especially at the university, because it represents a considerable amount of work. In secondary and primary schools, the dictionary won’t work ÔÇô it is just too high level. Perhaps the back cover of the dictionary is right that 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 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 first 185 pages of the dictionary are just technical Setswana grammar, largely Setswana tonal system. That is a lot of grammar material that precedes the real dictionary. Unfortunately the said material is not lexicographic; it’s purely linguistic material which has minimal bearing on the dictionary itself but which researchers of Setswana phonology will probably find useful. To have an idea of its size, the material covers the same space as letters A-I of the Setswana-English side of the dictionary.

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 is worrying since it demonstrates that we are not recording the Setswana language sufficiently over time. There is therefore a great likelihood that over the years many Setswana words have been lost since they were never documented. This dictionary is therefore welcome since it functions not only to document the Setswana language but also provided 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. Many students of Setswana linguistics will remember Prof Cole’s descriptive book of the Setswana language An Introduction to Tswana Grammar. It was published in 1955 in Cape Town by Longman. That is about 57 years ago! To observe that Prof Cole has had an illustrious career has a linguist is an understatement. That he has stretched his research into the muddy waters of lexicography is most impressive. Certainly what Prof. Cole has produced is a dictionary which has the largest collection of words ever. However even that claim is very controversial because it begs the question: what is a word? Are tsamaya, tsamaile, tsamailwe, tsamaisa, tsamaisitse, tsamaiseditse, tsamaisitswe, tsamaisiwa, tsamaiwa, tsamatsamaile different words? In terms of Prof Cole & Moncho-Warren they are different words which deserve unique entry into the dictionary. Linguistically, they are merely grammatical words (merely wordforms) which don’t warrant unique treatment in the dictionary. Since Setswana morphology is highly productive, this means that there are potentially a couple of thousand entries which have been entered into the dictionary without definition.

It is fair to say that this column cannot review this important dictionary. A proper academic review of this dictionary will be sent to lexicographic journal, Lexikos. An overall impression of the dictionary is that it is an important addition to Setswana lexicography.


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