Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Early Setswana Lexicographic Work

Setswana has a long lexicographic tradition although it has involved slow production of lexicographic work over the years. Current lexicographic writings usually trace the origin of the Setswana lexicographic analysis to John Brown’s bilingual dictionary of 1875 (Kgasa and Tsonope, 1998:iv), or to 1830 when Robert Moffat published a Setswana version of the Gospel of St Luke, and at the back offered two pages of explanations of the more “difficult” words.

In 1830 Robert Moffat published a Setswana version of the gospel of St Luke, and at the back offered two pages of explanations of the more “difficult” words. Is it fanciful to regard this as the first small germ of a dictionary? …but the first published dictionary of which the Botswana Book Centre has record is that of John Brown in 1875 (Jones in Matumo, 1993:vii).

Actually ‘the first gem of a dictionary’ lies much earlier than the Moffat’s 1830 writings that Jones refers to. Research shows that Hinrich Lichtenstein in the two volumes of Travels in Southern Africa in the years 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1806 had a list of about 270 Setswana words and phrases. The original document in German appeared around 1811. Therefore the earliest lexicographic activity known to us so far can be traced to 1803-1806, in Lichtenstein works. In 1815, John Campbell in his Travels in South Africa gave a list of 80 ‘Bootchuana Words’. Salt (1814) in Voyage to Abyssinia contains a list of 20 Mutshuana words and their equivalents in English. According to the evidence we have so far, lexicographical work in Setswana, regardless of its size and detail, existed before the work of Moffat, who came to Southern Africa in 1816.

The first bilingual dictionary, Lokwalo loa Mahuku a Secwana le Seeneles, was compiled by John Brown (1875) of the London Missionary Society. An enlarged and revised version was published in 1895 and was reprinted in 1914 and 1921. In 1925 John Tom Brown produced the third edition of this dictionary based on A.J. Wookey’s research
[1]. However since the 1925 dictionary version of Tom Brown to mid 1970s, Botswana went through an inactive period of dictionary production. It was not until 1976 that Morulaganyi Kgasa published his 134-page monolingual dictionary – Thanodi ya Setswana ya Dikole ‘The Setswana Dictionary for Schools’, whose main target group was primary school pupils. Kgasa’s dictionary was the first monolingual dictionary from Botswana. In 1998, in collaboration with Joseph Tsonope, Kgasa produced the second monolingual dictionary Thanodi ya Setswana which up to date remains the definitive monolingual Setswana dictionary from Botswana. For this reason, I will make repeated references to it. A smaller, but detailed, trilingual dictionary -Setswana, English and Afrikaans- was produced by Snyman et al in South Africa, whose target was the secondary and university reader. The latest dictionary from Botswana is Creissels and Chebanne’s Dictionaaire Francais-Setswana Thanodi Sefora Setswana, which is the first French/Setswana bilingual dictionary. Its primary target group is students of French at secondary and university level. It stands out as the first and only dictionary from Botswana with phonemic transcriptions and a large amount of pictorial illustrations.

Lack of Theoretical Lexicography

Although there has been an increase in the number of Setswana dictionaries, very little attention in Botswana is devoted to theoretical work on dictionaries. This problem is not unique to the Botswana situation, but it is a problem faced by the linguistic discipline at large as Connell notes:

Compiling and editing dictionaries – lexicography – certainly has to do with language, but judging by the lack of attention devoted to this practice in linguistics programmes and textbooks, one might be forgiven for concluding that it is relatively insignificant or is a task of such monumental complexity that it is still beyond our grasp (Connell, 2000).

The lack of interest in lexicography by linguistics departments, as Connell points out, results in a gulf between linguistic concerns and lexicographic ones. Lexicography as a theoretical practice is fairly recent in academic discourse in the world at large and more so in Botswana, although as a practice it has been around for centuries. Its development and success has depended greatly on advances in linguistic (Discourse Analysis, Phonetics, Morphology Translation Studies and Semantics, etc.) and on the development of printing (Johnson, 1824, preface; McArthur, 1986; Hudson, 1988). As stated above, interest in lexicographic theory in Botswana are almost non-existent and this is especially shocking in that lexicographic practice is fairly vibrant and dictionaries are used consistently across the education spectrum. In many educational departments, debates on the validity and structure of dictionaries have largely been left to publishing houses, which advertise them in various schools. The danger with this commercial approach is that scholarly lexicographic work stands threatened by the pursuit of profit. Clear theoretical analysis of, and debates concerning dictionaries, using some of the recent lexicographical principles needs to be maintained to assess the quality of contemporary dictionaries. It is important that this is done within a scholarly framework to advance the development of lexicographic research, both at a theoretical level and at the level of dictionary production. Having discussed a historical development of dictionary making in Setswana, I will proceed to look at some of the common problems that have faced lexicographers through the history of Bantu lexicography in general.
[1] Peters, M.A., Bibliography of the Tswana Language, State library, Pretoria, 1982: xxiv

This an extract from my Oxford University M.Phil thesis in General Linguistics


Gladys said...

Dumelang Batswana,nna ke rata go tseba tlhaloso ya leina le Makolo.Letloto(treasure) ke leina la sesotho, ka setswana ke mang?

kanelo said...

what is the meaning of kanelo and i named my son Goitsemodimo meaning to know God or knowing God.

Anonymous said...

Kanelo means "an act of sealing" When something is complete you close it and seal it... o a e kanela. Goitsemodimo means GOD KNOWS or "IT IS GOD WHO KNOWS"

Anonymous said...

What is da meaning of da name Gaolopelwe?

Anonymous said...

My grandma is tswana n she gave me the name Ntsae I'd love to knw what it means

matshediso mosoeu said...

What is the meaning of tlameo

Anonymous said...

i am a Tswana who not only speaks the language fluently and perfectly but is also very much interested in its preservation as well as instilling a sense of pride on all those who consider themselves Tswana.Email me at if you want to know something relating to Tswana names, idioms, proverbs etc.

khuwa Sibanyoni said...
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