Saturday, March 6, 2021

“I killed a man but he is alive” tales of peace and conflict

Amongst language specialists, there are semanticists. These are linguists who specialize in the study of language meaning. We must quickly acknowledge that the study of meaning is vast. There are linguists who concern themselves with sentence meaning, that is, how different sentences relate to each other. Such linguists look at sentence relations such as contradiction (e.g. I killed a man but he is alive) and tautology (e.g. I saw him with my two eyes. Obviously! We never see others using borrowed eyes!). There are those who deal with word meaning and how they relate to each other. Such individuals deal with matters of meaning similarity known as synonymy as well as meaning opposites known as antonymy.

There are also those who study how context or society contributes to our understanding of meaning. They argue that language is a social product and it is better understood within specific social contexts. For instance, Setswana has unique colour patterns and terms which are unique to it. We know that both blue and green are represented by the form tala, the same form that we use to mean raw. We also know that Setswana has a unique and rich animal colour terminology. Technically we say such terms have been lexicalized, by that we mean that a single word refers to a concept. For instance phatshwa refers to the concept: “black and white in male animals”.

English lacks a similar complexity. This unique quality of language linked to a specific culture is known in linguistics as a Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is a fanciful way of saying language is linked to its context. In other words language reflects elements of its culture and therefore words gain better meaning within a specific culture and period. Below we look at the word kagiso and how it is formed in Setswana. The central argument in this regard is that Batswana look at peace not as a state but rather as a continuous process that is continuously being built. We gain all this by looking at the formation of the Setswana word kagiso. Let us start with how the kagiso is put together.

The Setswana word “kagiso” means “peace”. It is formed from the root: aga which means to build, to construct or to put together. The suffix “-isa” is then attached to the verb “aga” to form “agisa”.

aga + -isa = agisa. “Agisa” means “to help someone build”. To change agisa to a noun we add the noun maker suffix [-o] to derive a noun. We therefore have: agisa + -o = *agiso (We here use the asterisk * to show that a word is not acceptable or doesn’t exist in Setswana.) Unfortunately [*agiso] is not acceptable or doesn’t exist in Setswana. This is because in Setswana when you form a noun from a verb that starts with a vowel you always insert a [k] at the beginning. For instance:

aba + -o = *abo > k + abo = kabo
aga + -o = *ago > k + ago = kago
ara + -o = *aro > k + aro = karo

To return to our unacceptable verb “*agiso”, the argument is therefore that it follows the same pattern as the above verbs. “Agiso” therefore takes a [k] at the beginning to form “kagiso”. The whole process appears as follows:

Aga + isa = agisa + -o = agiso > [k] + agiso = kagiso

That is the technical morphological formation of “kagiso”. Semantically it is clear that the Tswana believe that peace is something that is built with the help of others. In the language it is called “go letlanya” (from the verb “letla” meaning to allow/permit) to bring peace between two or more people. Amongst the Batswana, therefore no one builds peace by themselves. Peace in the Tswana philosophical thinking is negotiated. It is a matter of give and take: trasliterationally “I allow/permit you” and “you allow/permit me”: Re a letlana. Peace is also seen as a continuous process; and not a state or a once off thing. Peace like a building is built or constructed. It takes time. Like a building sadly peace can be destroyed and razed to the group. Let’s pause there with our discussion of the term kagiso and consider its opposite: kgotlhang meaning conflict.

The word kgotlhang is derived from the verb: go gotlha (and not the verb kgotlha which means to poke, as one might expect) which means to rub against, to file down, to scratch, to scrape off. Through a linguistic process of strengthening the noun kgotlhang is derived from gotlha. Conceptually when there is conflict the Batswana see this as the occurrence of a rubbing against each other between protagonists: batho ba a gotlhagotlhana. The idea behind this is that there is not just an encroachment into each other’s space since that is not seen as a source of conflict. Instead, a conflict is when one doesn’t just encroach into individual, but proceeds to class with the occupants of such a space. This results with a clash against each other which causes friction. Friction is unpleasant. It leads to fires. It leads to a burning and a peeling off. This tells us something else. It tells us that the Batswana value individual space since it signifies peace. They value coexistence within such a space and not a clash. One must be left alone and not be harassed: a tlogelwe. An understanding of where words come from gives us a better glimpse at the mental processes that birthed them such that an understanding of peace and conflict is laid bare before our eyes.


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