Setswana and English are the only languages that are used in parliament. In the past the latter was the only language used to conduct debates in the house but the standing orders were later amended to allow Setswana. When he is on the floor, Gaborone West South MP, Robert Molefhabangwe, who speaks more than 10 languages, finds it hard to resist the urge to occasionally colour his debates with the odd Latin phrase or two.
Just before the last parliament went on recess, he was debating the Botswana Broadcasting Policy, during the course of which he shared his experiences from a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he had gone as an observer in the country’s recent general elections.
He had, he said, gone deep into the country where one could learn all sorts of criminal and political tricks. Francistown South MP, Khumongwana Maoto, interjected to ask Molefhabangwe if he learnt any tricks that he could be able to use to help quell the turmoil in his party ÔÇô the Botswana National Front.
“Quem Dios vult pedere, prios dementat,” he said in apparent response to Maoto.
Other MPs, like Shoshong’s Duke Lefhoko, had hoped that Molefhabangwe would translate that Latin into Setswana, the language he was debating in, but that did not happen. Lefhoko rose to ask that Molefhabangwe translate his Latin for the house to understand what he meant.
On the Deputy Speaker’s instructions, Molefhabangwe told the house that his Latin meant that “Those whom God has cursed, He first takes away their sanity.”
He had not answered Maoto’s question because he felt that it had been prompted by a curse from the heavens above.
At this point, Molefhabangwe does not seem to want to say where he learnt his Latin. He says that it was in Serowe ÔÇô his ancestral home ÔÇô but that seems most unlikely because the Latin spoken in that village is 100 percent Setswana.
When Molefhabangwe speaks Latin, only two other MPs ÔÇô Health Minister, Sheila Tlou and Ponatshego Kedikilwe of Mmadinare understand him.
To the suggestion that some would think that he is showing off, the MP responds: “That is up to them but I’m just like those who speak English which I never do. Are they also showing off?” he posed.
It is hard to judge the MP’s proficiency in Latin but, by his account, he can handle the language “fairly well”.
He says that he is able to write and converse in it as well as translate texts.
At a functional level, is Latin really a language because nowhere in the world is there a speech community that speaks it, except may be at the Vatican and it also has no dynamism? You cannot walk into the MPs bar at the National Assembly and order a beer in Latin; a job interview cannot be conducted in Latin; even in Italy, court cases are not argued in Latin; and, CEDA application forms will never be written in Latin.
However, the MP, a Catholic, contends that Latin is a fully-fledged language that is spoken in the Vatican during religious ceremonies.
Tlou, who studied Latin at St. Joseph’s College and passed it with distinction, disagrees by making the assertion that Latin is “a dead language”.
“All you can do with Latin is use phrases to make a point but that is as far as it goes for purposes of communication. You cannot have a back-and-forth conversation in Latin like we are doing now,” Tlou says.