Friday, June 21, 2024

Did you know that the word kabu is borrowed from Afrikaans?

Setswana has borrowed extensively from Afrikaans and English. Much of Setswana’s contact with Afrikaans is as a result of Batswana working in the mines, fields, shops and houses of Afrikaners in South Africa. It was inevitable that since Afrikaans was the language of power and privilege during the Afrikaner and English rule in South Africa, Setswana would borrow extensively from Afrikaans. This is not to say that Afrikaans did not borrow from Setswana. However such borrowing was minimal. For instance Afrikaans words such as lapa (lelapa) and makietie (mokete) were borrowed from Setswana/Sotho.

There is however a large vocabulary that has been borrowed from Afrikaans into Setswana. Much of it is not obvious to the common Setswana speaker since the etymology is completely lost over the years.

Maize came into South Africa from the Portuguese through Mozambique. The Tswana only encountered maize through working on the boer farms. They acquired the word mmidi from the Afrikaans word mielie and acquired the word pidi from the Afrikaans term pit (not to be confused with the English word pit) or mieliepit. The Afrikaans word mealie is itself of Portuguese etymology derived the Portuguese word milho. Many African languages in South Africa and Zimbabwe use a variation of the term mielie. The Setswana language has also borrowed the word kabu from the first part of the Afrikaans word kaboe mielies. This information is part of Setswana’s historical linguistics and is not hypothetical. Among the northern Tswana, maize arrived with missionaries who established agricultural stations as part of mission churches. Southern African diets up to the first third of the twentieth century still consisted of sorghum and millet, reflecting landscapes where maize was sometimes known but never dominant.

James MacCann observes that in southern Africa, maize still had not arrived at the Cape by 1652; Jan Van Riebeeck did not report seeing it there in that year, despite his hope to identify new local food sources. As part of his plan to provision Dutch East India Company ships he asked for maize seed to be sent from home, to test its value at his planned supply station. The threads of cultural, aesthetic, and popular responses by African peoples who appropriated the New World crop into their diets and economic lives provide more enigmatic evidence of maize’s arrival in Africa. One measure of local perceptions of the new crop, and the timing of its local arrival, is the fascinating panoply of names that African languages attach to maize. One common Old World practice for naming the new arrival was the use of a name for an already-known grain, combined with popular ideas about its provenance. In highland Ethiopia, Semitic speakers called it yabaher mashela which literally mean the sorghum from the sea. In Malawi, speakers of Chichewa call it chimanga which means from the coast, indicating a similar perception of its origin. The name chimanga is a term that is also used by Kalanga speakers to refer to maize On the East African coast the Swahili word is muhindi which means the grain of India. At the mouth of the Congo River in the mid-sixteenth century local Kikongo speakers called maize maza mamputo which means grain of the white man; Mande speakers in Senegambia offered call maize tuba-nyo which means white man’s grain”.

Other cultures use names with more enigmatic referents, or have borrowed names from neighbouring cultures where the crop had had a longer history. Swazi traditions, for example, associate maize’s arrival with the origins of their Dlamini royal clan, but the siSwati language borrows the Zulu term m’lungu to refer to maize, which literally means a white man. 

Maize made its early appearance in southern African farms and gardens not as a protagonist, but as part of a supporting cast that fit into seasonal cycles or specific soil niches between the older staple crops, or alongside other New World ├®migr├®s such as cassava, beans, or pumpkins. Brazilian coastal flints, perhaps the first maize imports to southern Africa, adapted well to the drier areas favoured by South African livestock-raising peoples. If flint yields did not challenge drought-resistant sorghum, fresh maize was edible earlier in the hungry season and could stay longer in the field without bird damage. In areas to the north of the Limpopo river, early flint maize moved in tandem with the penetration of the Indian Ocean economy from the east. By the middle of the nineteenth century, maize was already part of a hand-hoe based, woodland fallow cropping system in low population areas of southern Malawi, where bush fallow was the norm. There is a need in our quest to understand the roots our tongue to apply important historical facts to aid us in getting a better understanding of Setswana. The approach to achieve this is not only to appeal to historical linguistics, but more so, to appeal to the field of history and archaeology.

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