Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Are these words, Setswana words?

There have been debates for many years if certain borrowings are actually Setswana words. What the question seeks to establish is whether certain words have been nativised? That is, have the words been accepted into part of the general acceptable lexicon or they are still marginal and perhaps only heard in oral exchanges? We generally know that Setswana sometimes excludes and marginalises certain borrowed terms and considers them marginal to the language; that is colloquialisms that shouldn’t be written. For instance the words Sateretaga, Sontaga and Mantaga are in general dispreferred especially in the classroom to Matlhatsi, Tshipi and Mosupologo and students are taught not to use them since they are not Setswana or at best colloquial Setswana.

This is an instance of an interference of instructors on the natural development of a language and making judgements on what is acceptable and good. This has occurred in other areas as well; words such as fenesetere have been downplayed or rather demonized, while words such as letlhabaphefo or seokomelabagwe have been considered good Setswana. This confusion comes from what is a dominant African matter of considering borrowings as corrupting the language. Languages such as English have been strengthened by acquiring words from other languages. For instance, the word vuvuzela was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary thanks to the Football World Cup held in South Africa. The word has not just made it into English; it has also made it into the Setswana language. The claim may be opened to debate. However the sentence Divuvuzela di ne di re tlhodia is a normal Setswana sentence. The word vuvuzela is a class 9 word noun and takes the plural prefix di-. The question of whether it is a Setswana word translates into the linguistic question of the difference between whether the term is a borrowed term or whether it is purely an instance of codeswitching. Codeswitching is a concurrent use of more than one language in a speech event.

This is common in multilingual speakers (speakers who are competent in a number of languages) especially in communities which use both languages commonly. So if someone say “Ke mmone in the morning” they are code-switching or code-mixing. Each language however must determine when instances of code-switching have become instances of borrowing. In other words we want to establish if in the sentence “Ga ke na electricity” whether electricity is a borrowed word from English and it is now part of the Setswana lexicon or whether the word electricity in this case, is just a case of switching to another language in the middle of a sentence. This very matter of whether a word is used as a case of codeswitching or of borrowing is a matter of great contention in a lot of linguistic discussion. Cases of borrowings are generally widely accepted. They are also used by speakers of one of the languages who speak one of the languages. What this means is that speakers of Setswana who don’t speak Afrikaans would use words borrowed from Afrikaans such as heke, jase, baki, hempe without even knowing that they are borrowed terms. This means that borrowed terms will be acquired by children who haven’t acquired the second language. The second challenge in dealing with this matter is the problems of linguistic purism.

Linguistic purism is rooted in the view that language is in continuous decline and therefore it must be protected from being defiled by borrowings. This is a practical conservative approach to language which amongst other things does not accept loanwords. French is one language which is well-known for being conservative. In France they have set up Academie francaise which is charged with maintaining the purity of the language. The problem with such academies is that usually a language develops and grows in the country while these language police look scornfully with condemnation at the language’s development. Language belongs to its speakers and not to self or government appointed experts. It is therefore not the role of experts to reject certain words in the language as bad or as polluting the purity of the language. Richard Chenevix Trench in 1860 tackled this matter when dealing with the subject of what to include in a dictionary.

He argued that, “a dictionary….is an inventory of the language… It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray. The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad, whether they do or do not commend themselves to his judgment, which, with certain exceptions hereafter to be specified, those writing in the language have employed. He is an historian of it not a critic…” Once the speakers accept and use a word, such a word is acceptable to them. The role of linguists and language experts is to explain and characterise the changes that happen in a linguistic community. Their role is not to pontificate or pass judgement on whether such language patterns are a pollution to the standard language. This is important since every language grows through borrowings.

Setswana has experienced this growth since the Setswana language came into contact with English and more importantly Afrikaans. Setswana has borrowed extensively from Afrikaans largely because many Batswana worked in South African mines and farms where Afrikaans was used extensively. Afrikaans for many years was also the official language of South Africa forced on many migrants and citizens of South Africa. Setswana has also borrowed from other African languages such as Zulu and Kalanga. This is normal and Setswana must be allowed to grow and not chained by those who have a view that there is a static form of the language called the standard. The standard does however exist, in a linguistic sense; however it is not static, it changes and grows and certain words like mist come and go while others like mountains prevail for a long time. Strange as it may seem; the lovers of Setswana may be its greatest enemies, holding it from growing.


Read this week's paper

The Telegraph October 28

Digital edition of The Telegraph, October 28, 2020.