Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Where do words come from?

I have realized that many people generally have no idea where words in a language come from. Which words? I mean all the words.

It is an awkward claim to those outside linguistics, for one to claim that they could explain the origins of words or the source of words. That is precisely what this column is about; explaining the source of words of languages of the world with precise illustrations from both English and Setswana.

There are two main sources of words of any particular language: make or borrow; if you are a business student I will put it this way for you: construct or import. The technical linguistic term for inventing a new term from nothing is called coining. This happens all the time and at different times. For Setswana, for instance, we have had words such as tlhogo, letsogo, pitse and kgokong. Imagine a time when the speakers of our tongue met these entities for the first time and developed terms to label them so that they could separate them from other entities in the world.

Other words have been formed by what is known as compounding. This means putting together words which already exist in the language to form new ones. This has happened with words such as tlhoo-tomo, tautona and kgosikgolo. In English we have examples such as born-again, breakup, trouble-maker, whistle-blower, store-room and many others.

New words can also be formed through a process called blending. This is combining usually the first sounds of one word and the final sounds of another word. This is common in English compared to Setswana. English examples include smog (from smoke and fog), infomercial (from information and commercial), netizens (from net (a short form of internet) and citizens) motel (from motor and hotel) and brunch (from breakfast and lunch). Some words are formed from acronyms. An acronym is a shortening of words in which the initial letters of the words in an expression are joined and pronounced as a single word.

Acronymy should be separated from initialism which is a shortening of words in which the initial letters of the words in an expression are spelt out. For instance, BDP, BPC and BNPC. In acronymy on the other hand, the initial letters of words are pronounced as a single word. For instance AIDS though it stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome it is pronounced as the word aids and not as A-I-D-S. Other acronyms include Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Wi-fi (wireless fidelity), sms (short message service), and radar (radio detecting and ranging). Other new words come into a language through what is called semantic shift.

This is when words in a language take on new meanings by extending or shrinking the scope of their reference. Take the example of the word mouse. The word has now been extended to the area of computing in which it is being used to refer to a small object that you move in order to do things on a computer screen. Because of its shape, this computer component is now known as a mouse. In Setswana the word ngwanyana used to mean a child. Now it means a girl. Now pause and imagine with me for a while dear reader. Imagine the first time Batswana encountered shoes, possibly on the feet of a white man. They should have thought them to be very interesting, perhaps even weird. They should have looked at the shoes and wondered what they would call them.

They looked at the shoes and then looked at the hooves of their cows. They looked at the shoes again and back to the hooves of their beasts and saw no difference between the shoes and the hooves. The shoes were human hooves. ‘These white men have made hooves for their own feet!’ they might have exclaimed. And that’s how probably shoes like hooves are now called ditlhako because they looked like tlhako, a hoof, of the Tswana beasts. The Setswana word for phone is mogala, a word which means a cable, a string or a rope. How a telephone came to be called a string is easy to explain.

Batswana probably saw the telephone cables connecting the telephone to different homes. So the telephone became synonymous with a cable. What about mobile phones? By the time the mobile phones arrived amongst the Batswana, the concept of a phone as a cable or mogala was fully established. Something interesting happened which gave rise to the name of the mobile phone in Setswana. Many of the cell phone users, especially men, kept it in a pouch which was clipped to the belt on the waist. The cell phone therefore became synonymous with the waist. It was therefore called mogala wa letheka, the waist cable or the phone of the waist. Even though the mobile phone is rarely clipped to the waist pouch, it is still called mogala wa letheka.

Some words in our language are derived from other words in the language. Take for example the word for rumours. It is magatwe. The word is derived from the expression ga twe which means it is said or it is reported that. Magatwe are therefore hearsays or reported sayings. Related to magatwe is the despised mabarebare which is derived from the expression ba re meaning they say. Through a linguistic process of reduplication and prefixation we end up with the word mabarebare.

Finally, a language enriches its vocabulary through borrowings. Borrowing is accepting words from other languages and usually matching them to the spelling and pronunciation of a host language. Setswana has borrowed extensively from Afrikaans and English. Words such as baesekele, hempe, kepese, baki, jase, pena, pensele, hamole, heke, kabu, kerese, Sontaga, Mantaga, and many others have been borrowed from other languages. However, there is still some confusion in the minds of some people. They consider borrowings to be detrimental to the health of a language. They believe borrowings kill a language. Many have argued before that the Setswana language must not borrow from any language. Instead it should coin or form new words through compounding. The confusion lies in the inability to appreciate the fact that speakers of a language will always explore the various word formation processes to expand the lexicon. It is in the nature of language to borrow in language contact situation. As long as Setswana is in contact with other languages, it will borrow from such languages to enrich its vocabulary. Some will criticise this natural process of language development, but fortunately they cannot stop it.


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