In the past few years that I have chosen to focus my research on the development and promotion of the Setswana language I have faced some of the most vicious attacks I have ever faced in my life. While my attempts have attracted to me affair amount of praise; they have equally attracted to me a large amount of reproach and disdain from many quarters and for different reasons. The attacks have taken different shapes and have come from some of the most unexpected quarters. In this column I discuss some of these challenges to demonstrate that the line of promoting an African language is not as rosy as some think it to be.
The most common attack I receive is from those who dismiss me as one who having drunk deep into the English language mug, now turn around and try to dissuade others from enjoying the same privileges as myself. I must confess that I did study English extensively at university. I was actually one of the three single major English students. I studied with Wazha Lopang, one Philip Mhundwa and myself. I have very fond memories of the time. It was a lonely time of endless reading. I must admit though that to do single major English was a prestigious thing at varsity. I finished my BA, single major English with a first class and proceeded to the University of Oxford to read for MPhil in Comparative Linguistics and Philology. So it is therefore true that the English language did open many doors for me. However, it was at Oxford that I thought seriously about the future of my own language. I spent a considerable amount of time at the Oxford University Press with very serious people working on the English language. In particular I was fortunate to meet one Penny Silva, a South African national who was editing the Oxford English Dictionary, famously known as the OED. She invited me to a number of seminars where changes and developments in the English language around the world were discussed. I met retired scholars in their 70s, 80s and 90s whose passion for the English language had not diminished a bit. It was fairly easy for me to be swept along by their infectious love and passion for English. I could have easily returned home to Botswana an Oxon who thought that all things English were supreme. However, my interaction with these learned men and women drove me in an opposite direction. It made me reflect deeply on the future of my own language. I imagined myself in my 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, if I ever get to live that long. I imagined myself back to the rolling hills of Kanye, at the kgotla kwa Ntsweng. What manner of old man would I be? One who quotes Gerald Manly Hopkins, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Yeats, Chomsky and others? The thought made me uncomfortable somewhat. Why should I devote my faculties to the development and promotion of the English language when these English men were doing a better job than me with their own language? The haunting question was therefore: If I didn’t develop my own language who would? Probably there would be others. By why not me? I therefore wrote my M.Phil thesis on Setswana lexicography. I remember at the time I was worried about the future of Setswana lexicography and to a large extent I still am. At the time MLA Kgasa was alive and he had published Thanodi ya Setswana together with Joseph Tsonope only a few years before. I saw Joseph Tsonope as a mentor; little did I know that his time in academia was coming to an end sooner than I had anticipated. The month that I returned from Oxford, the father of Setswana lexicography, MLA Kgasa died. Then soon after that Tsonope moved into university administration and the future of Setswana lexicography was threatened as it still is up to this day. So while it is true that my background is in English, my choice to focus on the Setswana language is a well thought decision having considered the global needs of the language. Setswana language development and research is fairly large and needs people of various talents and interests. My interests are fairly narrow and individuals of various specialties will each in their small way contribute to the bigger project of language development. I believe English is important to learn and master; however I wish we devoted more energies to researching the Setswana language than we are currently doing.
Strange enough, I am usually attacked by teachers and lecturers of Setswana; the very same people with whom I should be working. To them I am not Setswana enough! I am like a mulatto being attacked for not being black enough. These lecturers usually accuse me of stealing their research. To be fair many of them are lecturers who usually have no research work to speak of. What they want to say is: why are you doing what I should or could have done? The accusation sometimes takes on a different shape. Sometimes some say I am encroaching into their research area. Obviously the accusations are without merit since my doctorate was on corpus design for Setswana lexicography. So Setswana lexicography and corpus linguistics are my areas of specialty. The area of linguistics is sometimes poorly understood by some. They mistake it for a secondary school subject like Setswana or English. Linguistics is the scientific study of human language with fairly two large aims: to account for the structure of individual languages of the world as well as to develop a singular theory of language for all languages of the world. The study of language is fairly broad but it divides into at least three large subfields of study: the study of language form (the study of grammar, morphology, syntax, phonology and phonetics), language meaning (the study of semantics, philosophy of language and pragmatics) and language context (the study of historical linguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, language acquisition, discourse analysis etc). For some of us who studied comparative linguistics.
One of the most common attacks that I receive is that I am against the development of other local language. This is largely because I advocate for the promotion and development of the Setswana language. That is my area of interest. I know of persons whose area of interest is the promotion and development of Seyei, Kalanga, Sesubiya, Sekgalagadi, San languages, Zulu etc. This doesn’t make them enemies of the Setswana language. We are merely interested in different research areas and we should be able to co-exist. There are however those who imagine our areas of interest to be mutually exclusive – a proposition that I reject strongly.
Setswana compared to many languages of the world needs researchers. Scholars in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe must collaborate to grapple with language and cultural matters for the greater good of their communities and scholarship in the language. In the past 30 years many Batswana have attained some of the highest degrees in all sorts of areas of specialization. It is important that many more devote their research to the Setswana language and the arts.