With its native speakers showing Setswana little regard, the language could well be on its way to extinction, writes TOMELETSO SEREETSI
SELEBI-PHIKWE: “Ntsenyetsa one Pula please,” she places the coin on the table.
She must be in her early twenties. She looks good, something out of the fashion pages of one of these many glossy magazines. Clutching at the leather handbag under her arm, she wipes the public cellular phone receiver with a tissue before she raises it to her embalmed lips.
“Hello, I am Karabo,” she loudly purrs out her name the way a culture shocked African-American would, winning a few amused stares from an army of bored public cellular phone operators lining the space of the mall. “Akere ne rra we meet kgantele ke chaisa? Call me ga o sa kgone,” she continues in that overly nasal vein, relishing as much every word she utters as those she swallows in her passion.
A few seemingly cathartic purrs and nasal-affected syllables later, she leaves a legacy of scorn and amused gossip behind.
“Batho tlhe ba rata sekgoanyana,” chirps in one of the public cellular phone operators, seeing that the young woman is safely disappearing, several shops away.
This linguistic mix or code switching, as linguists would say, is a cultural movement whose growth is undoubtedly evident. A small dose of English here, a slice of African languages such as Zulu, Pedi and Sotho and a generous proportion of Setswana to the boil as well as the adoption of a Euro centric accent to taste, completes the complexion of this new dialect.
It has made an indelible mark on the national psyche. While many stood aside and watched with mixed feelings, many bought into it and went a little distance to milk it of what it’s worth to move one or two products off the shelves. When big communications companies like Mascom use lines such as Kganna ha mnate and Nzamela airtime, there is no prize for guessing that the lingo has definitely transcended the street discourse to the boardrooms, and arguably right back to the streets (now dripping a sense of legitimacy and sassy class). Little wonder then that it has made it to national radio and other public spheres. A fluent Setswana sentence has fallen into the realm of the nostalgic, that which elicits an awed response when heard.
This linguistic movement impresses not everyone. Some see the cultural phenomenon as an ominous bell that points to the extinction of the indigenous Setswana language, together with the cultural identity and knowledge duly encapsulated in the sonic breadth of words. Modirwa Kekwaletswe, author of the recently published critique of local poetry and music entitled, Legalapa-Kanoko ya Poko le Mmino wa Setso, is irked by the increased use of foreign words where there are Setswana words that can be used to adequately capture the same intended sense.
“People who mix up Setswana with English wish that they could be fluent in English. If they had great fluency in English they would only use that language. They do not even borrow appropriate words from South African languages. They are unaware that they are destroying their language. This is a big challenge not only for Setswana but other indigenous languages in the country,” he observes.
What forces are at play here? How can this cultural phenomenon, which seems to be en vogue, be explained?
Mogakolodi Boikanyo, an editor with the Setswana newspaper Mokgosi and author of a Tswana novel, Lo Ojwa Lo Sale Metsi, traces the phenomenon back to elementary school where, he argues, poor performance in English is perceived as a sign of dullness and worthlessness. He argues that it is instances like this that help mould Batswana into a people with no pride in who they are.
“We learn from an early age that English confers more of a sense of self worth and pride than our local languages. English is seen as wealth. Le bagolo tota ba bua sekgoanyana. This is obviously wrong. Indians come here armed with good mathematical skills that are many a time not complemented by a good command of English, and still teach in our schools. I have been perceived a failure because I failed English at school. I think it’s time that jobs were applied for in Setswana. Imagine how it would be if we wrote our curriculum vitae in Setswana,” he contends.
A 23-year-old secretarial studies student at Selebi-Phikwe Technical College, Lesego Tlhabologo, is for this new multi lingual dialect. She does not see the development as problematic at all. She argues that falling for the dialect is inevitable given the fact that this is a changing society whose value system is also undergoing constant change. She sees the cultural phenomenon as a coping mechanism in a world that grows overly Euro-centric with each day.
“You see, English is far much better than Setswana because it is more specific. It does not beat about the bush as Setswana does. It goes straight to the point. For instance, there is only one word in Setswana for the words ‘love’ and ‘like’, ‘rata’. It does not sound good when someone tells you that ‘o apare bontle’, but ‘you are cute’, on the other hand, does it for me. It is even much more unfashionable and distasteful to propose to a girl using Setswana,” she argues.
Maybe she has a point. Kekwaletswe contends that Setswana and other indigenous languages, as Third World languages, are not developed in a way that can accommodate new lexical icons, especially those found in information technology such as ‘mouse’ and ‘cursor’. He argues that this deficiency makes it difficult to market in Setswana. He says that English is a business language and people know that mastery of the language from a young age spells a good future. He further laments that Radio Botswana seems to no longer have personnel that can ably add new words to the Setswana vocabulary as they did with terms such as ‘kgotlha-more-o-itirise’ for ‘machinegun’.
A lecturer in the department of African Languages at the University of Botswana, who would not divulge her name because she “presents a synopsis of various opinions solicited from a number of linguistic and literary persons in the faculty of Humanities”, is adamant that given its own cultural context, Setswana is perfectly adequate to express any concept or knowledge. She identifies the linguistic gumbo as a developmental phenomenon.
“Tswana speakers now tend to code-switch to other languages since they think that they would express themselves better. They tend to value a language such as English, which has been perceived since the colonial era as a developmental tool and a language of prestige or as a sign of knowledge and modernity,” she observes.
The UB linguist further argues that Setswana has the potential to be a language of business and trade. “Isn’t it that business is done with Batswana? Covers and tags for locally produced goods should be in both Setswana and English,” she argues.
She adds that language is made stronger by its users. According to her, it is the speakers who make English superior to Setswana and it is them who can also place it in a positive light by not placing it below other languages. She concurs with Kekwaletswe that there is a need to restore confidence in indigenous languages on the part of government by translating public texts, including laws and policies because they are after all made for Batswana.
“Let us put in place language use structures in our administrations, communications, businesses and schools. Let us write HIV/AIDS messages in Setswana and other indigenous languages of Botswana, where possible. Let us reward good use of Setswana for instance, the best Setswana speaker and user in the media, at work or at school. Let us invite the general public to coin new Setswana expressions for new technologies and equipment,” she advises.
From Mmegi Newspaper, Tuesday 5 April 2005