Mmegi Blogs :: Tracing the linguistic roots of terms ‘rogo’ and ‘tala’
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Tracing the linguistic roots of terms ‘rogo’ and ‘tala’

In Setswana, there are two main attributes we associate with vegetables (me-rogo): that they are ‘green’ (tala) and that they are ‘raw’ (tala). In this week’s article, we trace the ancient linguistic roots of these Setswana terms and relate them to an ancient and now-lost protolanguage we once all spoke as little back as the Neolithic era (about 5-6 thousand years ago).
By L M Leteane Thu 30 Jun 2016, 12:25 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Tracing the linguistic roots of terms ‘rogo’ and ‘tala’








Of course, the concept of a now-lost universal language is covered in Genesis 11’s account of the Tower of Babel, but what is still unknown is that Setswana is still very close to that old protolanguage, and this is what I cover in this column.

The proto-term roggo actually started off not relating at all to vegetables. The term, it strongly appears, originally meant ‘red’. In various prior articles, I traced the root of the term ‘red’ as being ru-ed, i.e. as literally meaning ‘having become ru [in colour]’. Grammatically speaking, this is exactly as in the term ‘roggo’: whose morphemes are ru + oga, the suffix oga (as opposed to ologa) meaning ‘become’ (ologa, we saw last week, means ‘undo, un-become’. As such, even the Setswana term ru-ru-oga means ‘become ru [in colour]’ – a term perhaps secondarily or semantically applied to a ‘swelling’ – now its present meaning – simply because, we can detect, a swelling in the body typically becomes blood-engorged and thus appears ruddier than the rest of skin. Even the term ‘ruddy’ itself – and others like ‘rustic, ruby, etc.’ – all relate to ‘red’. From this, we can more easily understand why ‘desert’ (desh’ret) means ‘red-land’: the soil of deserts – even sand dunes – tend toward red in colour. But since desha (land) has a very interesting etymology, let us devote a few lines to examining the proto-term.

Desha is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘land’ (Sanskrit is the ancient, now-archaic classical language of India). In Setswana ‘land’ is now ‘le-fatshe’ and the term fatshe – made up of the iteration fa and zi, both terms meaning ‘here’ (I have explained zi in many prior articles) – means ‘here [on earth]’. The term desha, on the other hand, actually means ’lease’…and this is still traceable in Setswana. A ‘lease’, we know, is a binding agreement that allows one use of an asset for a period of time. In Setswana, ‘allow’ is leta (now formally spelt letla) and we can easily relate it to the English term ‘let’, just as we can relate lesa (‘let go [of], allow or free one to do something) to the English term ‘lease’. The noun of leta is tetla which we can relate to ‘title’ (as in title deed, entitlement, etc.) and that of lesa is tesa, thus desha in Sanskrit. Land, it is evident, was property that one was given a tesa for – most likely by the king and, in even more ancient times, by the gods (who ‘owned everything’) – and so the term desha became synonymous with ‘land’.

 Getting back to the term roggo, we find that its eventual association with ‘vegetable’ follows an understandable and easily traceable semantic path. The root of the association lies in the primary association of ‘red’ with ‘raw’…the main and obvious source of this being meat. Raw meat is obviously red in colour due to

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the presence of blood and normally we have to cook it to be able to enjoy eating it. This ingredient association with ‘raw’ led to ‘green’ vegetables, i.e. raw vegetables that tend to be green because of the copious presence of chlorophyll in the leaves, being called roggo as well – even though they are a different colour! This would seem unfair on vegetables: why should they be called ‘red’ whereas they are actually green in colour, just because they are ‘raw’? In the strange way in which language develops over millennia, however, vegetables apparently took their own back…and I will explain how.

This ‘revenge’, if you like, or simply a way ancient people wished to balance things, led to the ‘green’ (tala) of raw vegetables also being transferred to meat. How? When meat is raw we say it is tala in Setswana! Although we understand that this means ‘raw’, the term tala also means ‘green’. Setswana is not unique in associating ‘green’ with ‘raw’. In English, a student who is still a fresher and thus considered ‘raw’ can also be labelled as ‘green’. Green, of course, suggests vegetation that is still growing as opposed to one that is old and withered – which otherwise tends towards a brownish colour. But how did the Setswana term tala come to be? What is its discernible etymology? It looks to me that it comes from the Setswana term for ‘be plentiful, be everywhere’: tala, now spelt tlala/ (I had explained at length, in prior articles, how the later penchant for tla instead of the old ta came about.) Indeed, vegetation is everywhere and when undisturbed will cover the ground like a carpet. And if one wondered why Setswana does not differentiate the green of vegetation from the blue of the sky (they are both tala and one has to say ‘the tala of the sky’ or ‘the tala of grass’ to differentiate the two colours), I believe I have the answer. Both the sky and grass are a seemingly endless covering and this ubiquity (go tala) gave both this primary meaning which transferred even to colour.

Now, the general connotation of ‘raw’ eventually led to other semantic shifts. In English, a ‘rustic’ person is one who is from a rural background. Of course, it was fashionable at one time to be pale in complexion rather than, as preferred nowadays, to be tanned because in those agrarian times people who worked hard in the field typically had a ruddy complexion as opposed to those with a softer lifestyle. ‘Rustic’ thus became synonymous with ‘raw, unpolished’ and this gave way to the term ‘rude’ which still relates to ‘ruddy’. In Setswana tala is likewise associated with rudeness and crudity. To cap it all, the Setswana term roga (‘insult, be vulgar towards’) and the English term ‘rogue’ are still premised on the ancient term roggo!

Comments to leteanelm@gmail.com

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