Saturday, June 3, 2023

Foreign words in Setswana dictionaries

I take a cue for this column from a reporter for the other paper who wrote about borrowings in the latest Setswana dictionary Tlhalosi ya medi ya Setswana. His argument is that the latest dictionary breaks tradition by including a lot of foreignisms on its pages. The dictionary certainly breaks tradition by its over 10,600 example sentences; over 13,400 phonemic transcriptions, over 4,400 synonyms and cross-referencing; over 1,500 idioms and proverbs; a broad representation of dialects words from a variety of Setswana dialects. It however doesn’t break tradition by its inclusion of borrowings though it is unique in that it traces a word to its language and term in that language.

There is however a need to clarify the lexicographic process and to make a distinction between the job of a lexicographer and that of a novelist. To do this properly we need to retreat to 1860 somewhere in the streets of London. Here we meet Richard Chenevix Trench, an Anglican┬áarchbishop, a Dean of Westminster,┬áand a poet, born on the 9th of September 1807 in Dublin. He is a graduate of Trinity College, University of Cambridge. We encounter his paper which gave impetus to the change of the trajectory of English lexicography. His paper was entitled: On some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries. In the paper he writes those magnificent words: “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… There is a constant confusion here in men’s minds. There are many who conceive of a Dictionary as though it had this function, to be a standard of the language; and the pretensions to be this which the French Dictionary of the Academy sets up, may have helped this confusion. It is nothing of the kind” (Trench, 1860: 7). Following Trench’s vision, work on the famous Oxford English Dictionary (OED) began and never ceased. The dictionary currently has over 600,000 words, over 3 million quotations, documenting over 1,000 years of English usage.

The author of that article, Mr. Monkagedi Gaotlhobogwe, from that other paper, makes grave errors about the statistics of Tlhalosi ya Medi ya Setswana. He says the loanwords in the dictionary “seem to make more than 50 percent of its┬ácontent.” His estimate is a gross exaggeration hedged by that important word seem. Of over 15,000 headwords in the tlhalosi only 1,179 are marked as borrowed terms. Borrowings therefore only make about 7.6% of the dictionary. This is not breaking with tradition as the writer claims. It is keeping with it. It may indeed be that he is unfamiliar with Setswana lexicography and terminology in general. To account for the treatment of foreignisms in Setswana dictionaries we must visit the first monolingual Setswana dictionary Thanodi ya Setswana ya dikole by MLA Kgasa (1976). Mathangwane (2008) has written a paper entitled The treatment of loanwords in Setswana dictionaries which assesses how loanwords have been treated and represented in a number of Setswana dictionaries. Concerning MLA Kgasa’s 1976, she notes: “This 134-page dictionary incorporated altogether 239 loanwords each identified in terms of its language of origin.” This means that Kgasa’s dictionary with about 4,288 headwords has 5.67% of its entries as borrowings. The tradition of including borrowings in a monolingual dictionary is not a new phenomenon. It has its roots in the very first monolingual dictionary by Kgasa. Not only that, Kgasa had made an important prediction in the same publication. He had observed that “Ka go sena puo e e phepa, Setswana se tsaya mafoko mo dipuong tse dingwe. Go tlaa fitlhelwa mafoko a mantsi e le a Sekgowa le Seburu ka gobo batho ba ntlha go kopana le Batswana ke Maburu le Makgowa. Mafoko a dipuo tse a tla nna a oketsega mo Setswaneng ka gobo Batswana ba tshela le dit┼íhaba tse” Kgasa was right. The number of borrowings, especially from English, continue to grow. Here are some of the loanwords recorded by MLA Kgasa in the 1976 dictionary amporekei┼íene, apole, Baebele, baesekele, baesekopo, baki, banana, barometara, beisane, bikiri, bitirute, bokose, bolakaboroto, borogo, dimenetse, dipolotiki, efangele, ekesesaese, emere, enjene, fenet┼íhara, fensetere, fivara, foraga, foreselaga, foroko, futshe, futubolo, garenata, halofo, hempe, heke and many others. A trailblazer in the inclusion of foreignisms is not Tlhalosi ya medi ya Setswana. The glory belongs to MLA Kgasa for establishing an important lexicographic tradition in the Setswana language. What the current dictionary is doing instead is continuing a culture which has been in existence for over 30 years.

However we must comment on the matter of borrowings in general. For any language to grow and flourish it must borrow words from other languages. This is in particular common in languages that are in contact, that is, languages that are spoken in the same geographic space. This is true for English; true for Afrikaans and true for Setswana. It is estimated that about 29% of the English vocabulary is borrowed from Latin while another 29% is borrowed from the French language since England was a French colony for some 400 years! This means that close to 60% of what we call English has Latin and French roots! Borrowings in English are generally taken to be enriching the language, while many speakers of certain African languages view borrowings with disdain and perceive them as corrupting their languages. However, even the hard core Setswana purists, will be hard pressed not to acknowledge certain borrowings; actually they will consider certain borrowings as excellent, deep, Setswana words. Consider the following borrowed words which many people consider them as Setswana se se phepa: kabu, h├¬k├¬, jase and baki. They are all borrowed from Afrikaans. It must be remembered that a lexicographer is not a critic; he is an historian documenting the state of the language. The question to ask is ‘which words are part of the inventory of a language in its diverse domains?’ Such words must be captured in the dictionary.

‘There is a constant confusion here in men’s minds. There are many who conceive of a Dictionary as though it had this function, to be a standard of the language; and the pretensions to be this… It is nothing of the kind.’


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