A warning: This column may offend those who know someone who has been murdered. If you are a lawyer, read this carefully, perhaps it might save a client of yours. I am concerned that many people may be ending up wrongly arrested by the police for having threatened to kill their partners. It appears that the most offending statement that many are accused to having uttered is Ke tlaa go bolaya which is usually translated as I will kill you. The statement is neither a promise nor a threat to kill. It could indeed be, just as see you in heaven or Ya go laela bagaeno might be, however we need not assume that it is. The offending word for the police and the source of confusion for many appears to be the word bolaya. Certainly, one might argue, the word does mean to kill. But does it? It certainly could but it doesn’t always do.
We do need to consider linguistic data to determine if indeed it does. To do this we will need to consider not just the term bolaya but also its derivatives such as bolaisa or bolaela. The data is culled from a 15 million Setswana corpus. Consider the following: bolaisa motho nno (to give someone too much beer); bolaisa motho sechwane (to make one run too much until their chest burn); bolaisa bodutu (to bore someone to death); bolaisa motho tlala (to starve someone); bolaisa popelo (to cause womb disease); bolaisa motho boroko (to make one want to sleep); bolaisa pelo (to cause a strong desire for something); bolaisa matlho (to cause eye disease); bolaisa lenyora (cause extreme thirst); bolaisa mala (cause stomach pains); bolaisa letsatsi (make one burn in the sun); bolaisa ditshego (make others laugh); bolaisa diatla (beat someone severely); bolaisa dipaputla (slap someone brutally).
Where does this leave us? So far go bolaisa appears to be to inflict all sorts of things on an individual; from causing one to laugh to starving an individual. So, are we arguing that bolaya doesn’t mean to kill? No, far from it ÔÇô only that contextually it doesn’t always translate as kill.
There are contexts in which it may indeed mean to kill; however, removed from context, our understanding of the term is supreme guess work. One way of discovering that bolaya is not necessarily about killing is if we consider sentences in which someone claims that o a bolawa. Here we have to inspect the derivative mpolaya in which one feels a target of the supposed killing or polao. Consider the following: O a mpolaya kana? O tloga o mpolaya, o tshware selo seo sentle?
When someone says O a mpolaya, they rarely mean You are killing me. In the majority of the cases, they mean You are hurting me. Actually it is inconceivable to imagine someone who is being killed crying out: O a mpolaya. When Batswana say O bolawa ke eng? they do not mean: what is killing you? They instead mean: what are you suffering from, or what is your illness? That is fairly well understood amongst Setswana speakers. Why is it that then Ke tlaa go bolaya is translated as I will kill you when O a mpolaya is not translated as You are killing me? Fa motho a go bolaisa diatla, he is not making hands kill you, rather he is making them hurt you. There are actually a variety of ways to threaten to kill someone: Ke tlaa go samisa tsebe; O tlaa gora kika mosimane! Ke tlaa go isa badimong. However have you ever heard of anyone who has been arrested because they said these statements? To threaten, like to insult, in Setswana is very complex. A few years ago one of the commonest threats was O tlaa se bona! One would appear ridiculous indeed if they complained to the police because someone merely said O tlaa se bona. This doesn’t mean that the threat is less severe. It is only that the threat doesn’t have the verb bolaya.
The challenge for police officers is not to get excited every time they hear that there is a threat to kill. Isn’t it possible that when an individual says Ke tlaa go bolaya they could basically mean that I will beat you up or I’ll hurt you real bad as the southern American film man would say? If there is a genuine threat to kill one would certainly expect the police to act accordingly, but not to presuppose it when it doesn’t exist. What is critical is an understanding of language; to pick nuances where the killer may be planning a murder without using the words bolaya. Identifying intentions to kill is beyond the subject of Linguistics. It is a matter of Psychology as well.
The police should therefore not jump to every occasion in which there is the use of the word bolaya since it doesn’t always indicate intent to kill. Batho ba bolawa ke ditshego le tlala with no real death occurring. Most murders are not announced. People don’t appear with axes and knives announcing to all those who care to hear their intention to kill. Many deaths are planned surreptitiously and executed meticulously. How are the police officers able to sense and pick these signs? Setswana is a complex language. It is one of the few languages in which you can announce your own death after you die. In Setswana you can say: Ke sule gompieno or Ka re o rebolaile…Re sule sentle! It would be a ridiculous officer who would attempt to arrest you for planning your own death since you are not saying you are going to die. What in effect you are saying is that you are already dead. Unless one understand how the language works false arrests would persist and the police would console themselves that they actually prevented a murder, when they have locked up an angry man who actually didn’t intend to kill anybody.
What is worrying about these arrest cases is that they are gender biased. Usually men are arrested for supposedly threatening death against women and men are not arrested for threatening death against other men. You seldomly hear of arrests of women threatening death against other women. There is an urgent need to train police officers, magistrates and lawyers on semantics, pragmatics, implicatures and Setswana idiomaticity. If we fail, ba tlaa re tlhabisa ditlhong….oh yes, without any real stabbing happening.