Friday, June 9, 2023

Where are the new Setswana words?

Lately there has been some excitement with the word twerking in America. This follows the raunchy dance move performed by Miley Cyrus at the MTV VMAs. Twerking is a dance move commonly performed by women, shaking their hips and bottoms in an up-and-down bouncing motion, causing the dancer to wobble and jiggle around. What attracted much attention was not so much that there was twerking my Miss Cyrus since twerking has indeed been common in the Caribbean for a long time. What attracted much attention was that the word twerk had made it into the online Oxford English Dictionary [] in August 2013. The dictionary defines twerk as to “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance” The illustrative sentence used to show this sense is ‘just wait till they catch their daughters twerking to this song”. It wasn’t only twerk which made it into the Oxford dictionary. Omnishambles and selfie┬áalso made it into the dictionary. Omnishambles was even named word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary for 2012. The word means “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations”.

The constant addition of words into English dictionaries has raised very interesting discussions around whether Setswana was consistently adding new words into its lexicon in the same manner pattern as English. The answer is an emphatic NO. This is because of two reasons. First, English is the most widely spoken language in the world, spoken by about two billion speakers. Because it is widely spoken in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various Caribbean and Pacific island nations and as an official language of Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Singapore and many sub-Saharan African countries including Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, it enriches its lexicon with words coming from all corners of the world. This is a strength that Setswana lacks. Setswana is spoken mainly in four countries: Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Even in these countries it is more dominant in two: Botswana and South Africa, where it is spoken as a national and official language respectively.

In both Botswana and South Africa Setswana is limited in its official function. It is actually a language that is spoken more than written. Its speakers rarely read material in it after secondary school education because they are semi-literate in it. There is also minimum support for those who wish to read Setswana since only the Botswana Daily News and Mmegi’s Naledi have minimum text in Setswana. This leads us to the main reason why Setswana is not consistently adding new words into its lexicon. This is because there are limited domains of Setswana usage. While English is not only used in numerous countries, it is also used in various domains including, newspapers, radio, the internet, law, agriculture, in the teaching of various subjects in the education system, parliamentary debates, business, religion, scientific research and many other disciplines.

This helps in its expansion because terms have to be created to carry various thoughts and ideas. Some of the terms are obviously borrowed from other languages which English has come into contact. For instance, English has borrowed extensively from French, Latin and Greek. This leads us to our next point why Setswana is not adding words into its lexicon at the same pace as English. In its contact with other languages, English has borrowed extensively. About 29% of the English language is of French origin.

Another 29% is from Latin, while 26% is derived from Germanic languages such as Dutch. About 6% of English is of Greek origin while about 4% is from proper names such as Xerox and Colgate. An additional 6% of the words are of numerous languages and some are of unknown etymology. Setswana has largely borrowed from two languages: English and Afrikaans. This is mainly because of the Batswana’s contact with Afrikaans and English in South African mines and farms. Although Setswana has borrowed extensively from these two languages there is much resistance from native Setswana speakers to accept borrowings into the writing system of Setswana. While many words are commonly spoken, they are rejected or looked down upon in writing. They are also discouraged from students’ writings and expunged methodically from any manuscript. I am here thinking of words such as Sateretaga and Sontaga.

There have been debates for many years if certain borrowings are actually Setswana words. What the question seeks to establish is whether certain words have been nativised? That is, have the words been accepted into part of the general lexicon or they are still marginal and perhaps only heard in oral exchanges? We generally know that Setswana sometimes excludes and marginalises certain borrowed terms and considers them marginal to the language; that is colloquialisms that shouldn’t be written. For instance the words Sateretaga, Sontaga and Mantaga are in general dispreferred to Matlhatso, Tshipi and Mosupologo and students are taught not to use them since they are not Setswana or at best colloquial Setswana. This is an instance of an interference of instructors on the natural development of a language and making judgements on what is acceptable and good. This has occurred in other areas as well; words such as fenesetere have been downplayed or rather demonized, while words such as letlhabaphefo or seokomelabagwe have been considered good Setswana.

This confusion comes from what is a dominant African matter of considering borrowings as corrupting the language. The evidence however is that languages such as English have been strengthened and not weakened by acquiring words from other languages.

Another important element to the development of a language is inventions. When Batswana invent things they have an opportunity to name them using their own language. With minimum inventions amongst the Batswana our language remains trapped in translation. So the question: where are the new Setswana words? is better answered by saying: they lay like lepers in the streets, unwelcome by the school teachers and publishers into the fixed and crisp book pages. They are linguistic outcasts which though thriving orally, they must keep a distance from the orthography table.


Read this week's paper