Sunday, September 20, 2020

Utlwa means more than hear in Setswana

This column shares some of the contributions of my colleague and mentor Prof. Andy Chebanne. I first encountered Chebanne as an undergraduate. Little did I know that he would shape some of my views and work in African languages linguistics and lexicography. In this column I discuss the verb utlwa which is highly polysemous.

A closer look at utlwa indicates that it is one of those verbs that in the grammars of languages are categorized as perception verbs, that is, verbs which relate to sight, taste, feel, smell, hearing. In Setswana utlwa is better understood as meaning perceive, and not hear as is usually the case in many dictionaries and glossaries. In its strict sense it expresses to perceive smell, taste, touch and noise. Because of its semantic nature, it then extends to abstract perception such as cognition and premonition, where the nature of perception no longer requires the physical properties of a bodily experience but only a mental sensation, grasping of information, knowing or distinguishing.

The latter senses are operations by which the mind grasps the external world and differentiates objects according to the nature of experiences that create a particular sensation, whether physical or mental. Utlwa therefore becomes an experiential as well as a knowledge appropriation verb. It brings together a complex interaction of sensations and mental processes that the speaker uses to make sense of the world. It is the structuring of these experiences that becomes important. Additionally, language, culture and semantic domains reveal subtle different meanings. For instance in Setswana, sight has another interpretation that is not assigned to the perceptions in utlwa.

In the theory of the grammaticalization of perception verbs, the sense of hearing ranks high in the perception function. For instance we say Ke utlwa ba bua (I hear them speak). Utlwa can also have a particular emotional or cultural value that is added to its common value with some connotations. In this sense utlwa extends its sense metaphorically. For instance we can use utlwa to mean to obey: Ga a utlwe batsadi ba gagwe (She does not obey her parents.). Ga a utlwe dikgakololo tsa bagolo (He does not listen to the advice of the elders). In the expression of olfactory (odorant) sensations utlwa gives the sense of “feeling the odour by the nose”. The sense of smell, being a physical sensation, is interpreted as physically contactive. However, it can also be used connotatively in the expression of a social attitude of aversion. For instance we say: Nt┼ía e utlwa monko wa phologolo (The dog smells the odour of animals.). Fa o palamela kwa godimo o tlaa utlwa phefo e e monate (When you climb high, you will feel the fresh air). In the expression of taste sensation utlwa expresses a sense of pleasure and satisfaction, such as socially appreciable tastes in the diet and the various culinary presentations. The sense of taste becomes one of the primary domains in which utlwa provides its value. We therefore say: Utlwa fa dijo di na le letswai (Taste if the food has salt) or Bana ba utlule monate wa borotho (The children have tasted the flavour of bread.).

The global physical sensation expresses sensations that are generally corporeal. However this sensation can be extended to abstract values or to values that may be interpreted as ambiguous, in that they bring in mental perceptions. We therefore say: Ke utlwa serame (I feel the cold) or O simolola go utlwa letsapa (You are starting to feel fatigue).

When utlwa is used to express mental perceptions, it has the value of non-contact feeling, and this extends to grasping or understanding through some mental faculty. This sense is derived by extension from the general sense of experiential knowledge provided for by other sense domains. For instance: A o ikutlwa go ya go tsoma?( Do you feel like going to hunt?) or Ke utlwa bohutsana (I feel sad).

In an intransitive construction, utlwa has the sense of a ‘have good hearing or be apt to hear’. This is the context that justifies the development and the interpretation of utlwa as the primary lemmatized sense in dictionaries. For instance Ga a utlwe sentle ka tsebe ya molema (He hears poorly with his left ear). Utlwa has also various derivations which also suggest that certain perception domains become more important over others. For instance utlwela expresses ‘feel for, suffer for, pity someone’ while utlwana suggests ‘understand, perceive, concede, agree mutually’. Utlwala expresses to ‘be perceived, appreciable, perceptible’ while ikutlwa expresses ‘feel like, crave for, wish, feel within oneself…’

The lexical analysis of utlwa reveals that it is a general perception verb. It definitely describes all the five known senses and even extends to non-sensory perceptions such as thinking, prescience and divination. From its derivatives, it becomes more of a verb that expresses various sentiments and social relational situations. Therefore it cannot be limited to hearing or any one isolated perception in the lemmatization of a dictionary. However it should be noted that, with better techniques of determining frequency associated with semantic usage, one may provide a better guidance on the ranking of different senses in the dictionary microstructure.


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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.