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Botswana’s code-talker paradox

Different strokes: Languages are an integral part of one's identity
With every generation, youths create words that are more likely to be understood within their own subcultures, but interfere with communication in the larger group.

Based on their ethnicity, culture, country and age they tend to develop jargon that outside their peer group, is unintelligible.

This type of situation is called the Code-talker Paradox, a term coined by Mark Baker in 2011 to describe the Navajo code talking that was used during World War II (WWII).

As such, the paradox is regarded as a problem in philosophy of language.

Code talkers are known to be able to create mutually intelligible language to each other but completely unintelligible to everyone who does not know the code.

As a result, this has caused a conflict of interest without actually causing any conflict at all. In Botswana, youth use code talking for different reasons.

Some use it so that only the person intended to receive the information can decode the language and for the next person to be excluded from the conversation.

Others regard it use as fashionable, while some use the code talking to belong to a certain group.

During WWII, code talkers were able to encrypt and decrypt messages quickly and easily by translating them. As such, the code-talker paradox refers to how human languages can be so similar and different all at once. 

Also similar that one can learn them both and gain the ability to translate from one to the other, yet so different that if someone knows one language, but does not know another.

It is not always possible to derive the meaning of a text by analysing it from the other language.

Funny enough, some of the words that these young people use are just the ordinary everyday words we use but have different meanings. 

For example, in Setswana we know that go kwala (write) means typing or taking a paper and writing something on it, but the young of today uses the word differently.

“Go kwala or makwalo also known as either writing or a letter means to eat to us. I can tell my friend,” a reye go kwala or ke batla makwalo” meaning, lets go and eat or I want to eat,” said one young man.

According to one parent, Mmegi News Editor, Greg Kelebonye, he was surprised and confused by the language that the young people use today. “I was very surprised when I heard my nephew telling the others gore a ikone (known as bending). I asked him what he meant as I wondered how the other boy was supposed to bend himself, but was speechless when I discovered that he meant that the other boy had to run,” he said.

The word ikone does not only mean run away to this generation code-talkers, it also means ‘go’.  Other typical words used in the code-talker paradox in Botswana are xhena or xhetha meaning ‘to finish’, lezhothi or lephontsha used to call ‘a girl more especially a beautiful one’, nzhoo for ‘bread’, skiphane or vaatsay for what are you saying or ‘wareng?’, gasho for ‘a foolish person’ and mzwenyane for ‘one’.

There are also many words used

to describe money such a ‘tiger’ for P10 and ‘two tigers’ for P20, and ‘skipa’ for P5. However, there are numerous codes made everyday and many more that have not been stated in this article.

According to Wikipedia, in the case of Navajo code-talkers, cryptanalysts were unable to decode messages in Navajo, even when using the most sophisticated methods available.

Baker solved the paradox with the theory of universal grammar. Within universal grammar, there are certain parameters that are shared by all languages, it stated. Languages differ from one another in that a given parameter may have different settings across languages.  The number of possible combinations of parameter settings account for the diversity of human languages, stated Wikipedia (Wiki).  The fact that every human brain is wired to process the same parameters means that to learn a new language, the brain simply adapts what it already knows, added Wiki.

According to University of Botswana (UB) Language specialist, Thapelo Otlogetswe, it is common throughout language across the world for people of different generations or groups to come up with languages that would only be understood by them.

“Slang, Tsotsitala are types of languages used by a certain group of people.  These languages are limited to a group of people or a closed group.  For example, UB students like using the word ‘mopako’ where an ordinary person would know ‘mopako’ as dijo tse a yang ko sekolong, tirong ka tsone kana go lo gongwe.  This group of people use the word for hard drives or copying,” he added.

He also added that the code-talker paradox is the type of plan made for a group of people to express themselves. He said that it became a code to communicate and bond with people in the group.

He emphasised that the primary function of this language is to bond members and for outsiders not to understand the conversation of that particular group.

“However, people have to be careful of how and where they use this language.  It is considered rude for young people to be speaking this slang or setsotsi as famed amongst the elderly people.  Using this kind of language is not acceptable to outsiders,” he added.

Otlogetswe also said that language has to be elegant. He said that young people have to know the domains of language and ensure that the domains of use are clear.

“It becomes a problem when a young person does not know where and how to use their kind of language.  They have to distinguish between the formal and informal domains when using their language,” he said.

He said that one of the biggest challenges in language usage is that the youth use code even in formal meetings and while writing.

“How can one be taken seriously when using that kind of language with the elders?  The youth have to understand that using slang or tsotsi has to be done amongst their group not in formal communication or writing,” he added.




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