Friday, July 19, 2024

You are what you speak?

Linguists have known this for a while, though it hasn’t been explored in our own environment sufficiently. Culture influences language. The wealth of our lexicon or the poverty that exists in our language reflects our culture. This is precisely because culture shapes a people’s language. It is a people’s culture, their way of life and beliefs, which chisels out new words and allow others to take their last breath. Language stores all the social lives and experience of a nation, and reflects all the characteristics of a nation’s culture. When a child learns a language of a nation, at the same time, he is learning the culture of the nation. If a person is not familiar with the culture of a nation, he can’t learn sufficiently grasp the language of the nation well. Language is inextricably bound up with culture. Cultural values are both reflected by and carried through a language. Every nation has its own way of viewing the universe, and each develops from its own premises ÔÇô a coherent set of rules, which will be handed down from generation to generation. Gradually, they are accepted as the essential part in people’s life. This is the formation of culture. Language is an important part of culture and also it is a necessary tool of maintaining culture, exchanging culture and reflecting culture. Language and the use of language are not separable from culture.

The power of language to reflect culture and influence thinking was first proposed by an American linguist and anthropologist, Edward Sapir and his student, Benjamin Whorf. The was developed into what in linguistics is known as the SapirÔÇôWhorf hypothesis which states that the way we think and view the world is determined by our language and the way our language is structured is a product of our own culture. Instances of cultural language differences are revealed in that some languages have specific words (lexicalise) for concepts whereas other languages use several words to represent a specific concept. For example, the Arabic language includes many specific words for designating a certain type of horse or camel. To make such distinctions in English, where specific words do not exist, adjectives would be used preceding the concept label, such as quarter horse or dray horse. English is also rich with words which refer to various breeds. You have the beagle, poodle, Chihuahua, bull dog, German shepherd, Labrador, mastiff, etc. This is in part because a dog is such a central part of English life such that its presence has contributed to the variety of terms and idioms. The English say every dog has its day, a dog’s breakfast, raining cats and dogs, it’s a dog’s life, go to the dogs, if you lie down with the dogs you will get up with the fleas, let sleeping dogs lie, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and many others.  

Setswana is rich with terms which relate to cattle since a Motswana’s life has for a long time depended on cattle and their products. This is a field which demonstrates the English language’s lexical poverty and Setswana’s impressive lexical wealth. Take the following nouns of a cow (in a generic sense) when it is perceived from different cultural roles and states: legangwa or leradu (a cow that is being milked), namane (a calf), bogadi (cattle brideprice), perepetsha (a gift cow from the bride’s family to the groom’s family after receipt of bogadi), lebotlana (a recently born calf), lesole (a strong grown up calf), poo (bull), lekaba (a bullock that was ridden in the past), pelesa (a bullock that was a beast of burden), motete (a cow that produces very little milk), moreba (a cow that is unable to produce its young), tshikela (a bullock ÔÇôcastrated at adult age). Additionally many African languages like Setswana lexicalize (forms words for) adjacent colours, something which is not common in many European languages. Once this fact is considered, a much more complex colour system in African languages is revealed. To understand Setswana animal colour terms one must therefore consider the following: the sex of the cow, pure colours; the size of the patch as well as the placement of the patch on the skin, mixed and overlapping colours as well as adjacent colours. 

The Setswana pure colours are generally not debatable. These are tshweu (white male) tshwaana 

(white female), ntsho (black male), tshwana (black female), thokwa (dark brown male), thokwana (dark brown female), khunohu (reddish brown male), khunwana (reddish brown female) and a few others. The difficult arises when you have colours such tlhaba which is a dark colour merging into lighter areas or points such as ears, face, muzzle, top of head, spine, tail, legs, spine, etc. The term is also used to refer to light colour merging into darker areas or points, ie brown, red, yellow, dun, grey or black with lighter areas or points, or brown, red, yellow, dun or grey with darker areas or points, like most Jersey cattle & Siamese cats (DT Cole). Other terms used in colour terms are tshega which is a broad belt or band of white around the middle, or a white body & forequarters, with dark hindquarters or hind legs [eg black, brown, yellow, etc]. Another term that is confusing is nkgwe which is the quality of being white-spined, having a narrow strip or a broad stripe of white along the spine or upper back; the rest of the body may be black, brown, red, yellow, etc, & the strip or stripe may be plain white or speckled. While someone may identify a cow as nkgwe another may identify it as kgwana e botlhabana. There is also a contentious matter of whether what we call colours are really colours. Take the term tshumu. Tshumu refers to a white patch on the forehead of white heard in an animal. Evidently tshumu is really not a colour; instead it refers to the placement of a specific colour in a specific spot. 

We do need to study our language a little bit more to determine how it sets us apart. Which concepts are typical of us? When we do, will grasp a better understanding of who we are.


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