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Setswana – A language on its deathbed? (Part 2)

Day one: Setswana is compulsory for most learners in the country PIC: PHATSIMO KAPENG
The way Setswana is gradually getting relegated to the backburner is reflective of the route normally taken by languages on the highway to death.

Apart from incidents of massive natural disasters and wars that result in displacement of communities, languages do not normally suffer sudden death.

This is often a long process. For us, it has already started with some children no longer learning Setswana because of their preference for English. In time more and more children might do the same until a few children can speak Setswana. By the time we wake up, we may find that the youngest Setswana speaking people are the oldest.

I’m passionate about speaking Setswana. It’s the only language that speaks to my emotions. The only medium through which I can eloquently articulate my joys and anxieties. All the right words are always at the tip of my tongue. I’m never hit by those moments of inertia where I have to fish for words and ‘um, er, uh or you know’ my way through a conversation or speech. Sadly, our own people struggle to read two or three lines, be it in a commercial advert or some message of national importance? That is deeply offensive!

As a young boy growing up in the dusty village of Molepolole, I was exposed to English and Setswana. The latter was the family’s primary language. Exposure to the former was mainly in written format or through school. My father was an ardent reader of the Rand Daily Mail until it ceased publication in 1985. This was a South African newspaper that enjoyed wide readership from its maiden publication in 1902 until the mid 1980s when it incurred the wrath of the Apartheid regime, largely for championing the rights of the majority.

Following the Mail’s demise, my father religiously read The Star, another South African daily. For weekends, he would spoil himself to the City Press and the Sunday Times. He also subscribed to the Readers Digest and he would from time to time buy Pace and Drum. Together with my siblings we devoured these journals. This improved our ability to read English and our capacity to comprehend it.

I’m by no means suggesting that we were a model family. I know a good number of families which did the same to varying degrees. Consequently, we grew up appreciating the beauty of the two languages.

My brother, who is married to a Motswana, has a five-year old son who can’t speak Setswana. Two of my friends are raising primary school-going twins who struggle to speak Setswana. Can you relate to this? Over the last two decades we have seen a surge in the number of Batswana children who are denied the right to learn and speak Setswana. If you want to get onto people’s nerves, you should raise this subject in an environment graced by the privileged upper middle to higher class of the society. For them, this emotive subject should not be discussed. It’s a personal issue for which family heads are entitled to make their own decisions.

Most of the children forced to speak English have Setswana names, although their pronunciation is often adulterated with an English accent. Temo pronounced Tymoh; Tema, Tymah, Kgori, Corry; Senwelo, Sunellow. I have to commend the parents though. This is a big improvement from what used to happen in the 1960s and 1970s when Batswana children were given meaningless names such as Kevin, Richard, Robert, Mable, Susan and Patricia.  

I will be the first one to acknowledge the immense benefits of being able to articulate one’s points eloquently in English. But would we say there is value in restricting our children to a monolingual culture when there is so much cultural and linguistic diversity. We can learn from nature. It thrives in diversity. That’s why we have words such as biodiversity, floral diversity and geodiversity. Is it possible for us to embrace different languages without necessarily despising our own?

Is our language dying? That might be far too negative. Particularly in view of the world’s understanding of dying languages. But could it be endangered? Our language is a living medium of communication.

Like all living things, it can be endangered and ultimately die. Left unprotected, it can be poached by the so-called international language. English always has its mouth wide open, ready to devour unstable languages.

What can we do to protect our language? How can we breathe vitality to this beautiful language? For it to remain relevant, it should be dynamic. It should evolve and embrace changes in the socio-economic and technological

spaces. We are saddled with more or less the same vocabulary we had a decade ago.

Meanwhile, dynamic languages have embraced change and coined words and phrases relevant to this era. Each year the English language benefits from an expansion in its vocabulary. Hundreds of new words are added. This is not a minor impromptu change. No, it is a well-considered determined effort to keep the language alive. Creative minds are always at play to coin new words.

Setswana is static. By now we should be having words for internet, social media, screenager and teenager. Not a long phrase like ngwana wa dingwaga tsa bolesome. We need to speak our language, not explain it. Our nation abounds with super-creative minds.

The issue is whether there is an officially recognised body that can be used as a platform for harnessing such creativity. A body that can give structure and direction to our efforts to save Setswana.

The government should lead in this initiative and rope in linguistic treasure houses such as our own Setswana guru Justice Gaolekwe, my friend Moroka Moreri, my former teacher Sebofo Motshwane and lecturers serving at the University of Botswana. It would be wise to have a language board that would seek input from other Batswana living in Southern Africa.

It would be silly for us to lull ourselves into a false sense of security, deceiving ourselves into thinking that our language is invincible. It can go the same route as Latin, Aramaic and biblical Hebrew. Languages that do not evolve always fall prey to predatory versatile languages, particularly in cases where immense socio-economic benefits are associated with the dynamic language.  Of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world, half are likely to be dead by the turn of this century and only 50 are spoken by half of the world’s population. In Botswana, 10 languages are endangered. Setswana is not one of them, purely because of the rigid definition accorded endangered languages; a language is endangered if a third or more of the native children don’t speak it. In Botswana, the official language at the workplace is English. Interview candidates who speak English with a nasal twang are often advantaged. We are slowly dragging our language into the endangered zone. But it is not yet there, and is in many ways salvageable. When Robert Moffat decided to translate the Bible into Setswana, he had two big challenges. One; his limited understanding of the language, two; the disparity in vocabulary between the two languages. But he didn’t give up. He embraced the challenge and involved the people in coining new words.

For one verse, he had to translate the words cucumbers and garlic. These were translated into words that sounded as Setswana as many others, dikomokomore and gareleke. Words that any Motswana can pronounce effortlessly.  Moffat didn’t tread the route of describing these words. It is this kind of mindset that we need. Otherwise, we cannot blame people for abandoning a language that limits self-expression.  I want to suggest four ways of keeping our language relevant. One; by Tswana-ising commonly spoken words. We have already made inroads into this with some words like borotho. Can we extend the same principle to other word profiles? Two; by using portmanteaus. This principle has worked well for the English language over the years. Here are a few examples. Newscast, news and broadcast; stagflation, stagnation and inflation; shepherd, sheep and herder. Three; the creation of an effective Setswana language board mandated to craft policies for revitalising Setswana and expanding its vocabulary. Four; by encouraging young people to learn Setswana and to speak the language with pride.

English language has done well on its militant chokehold on many languages. Some languages can no longer breathe purely because of the aggressive nature of this language.  We can’t put our hands on the head and expect this dominant language to spare us. We have to take the initiative to save our language. All of us, the government, parents and children have a part to play in breathing vitality to our language. This reminds me of what Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’.


*Kevin Mokento is the pseudonym of a Mmegi contributor who has requested anonymity for professional reasons.

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