One of the privileges of being a lexicographer is that you tend to find out language issues which other people take for granted. In the past few years I have gained much fascination from the history of words, that is, where they come from. The Setswana that we speak has gone through much change over the years. Some of the changes, perhaps the most obvious ones, are those which come from language contact. Setswana has had contact with English, Afrikaans, Kalanga and other regional languages. There is a need to preserve these changes in dictionaries so that those who come after us will understand some old texts and also understand who they are. Many personal names are fossilized nouns of old which are no longer used in daily discourse. For instance surnames such as Tshane and Tshosa.
In our quest to preserve our language in dictionaries, we must not reinvent the wheel. We must learn from developments elsewhere. One place from which we can learn is from the English language. Let us dial the clock backwards – way back to the 1800s. In November 1857 Richard Chenevix Trench read a paper entitled On some deficiencies in our dictionaries to the Philological Society of England. This paper has been considered by Winchester as a formidable critique of the few dictionaries then in existence. Trench argued that dictionaries suffered from a number of shortcomings – grave deficiencies from which the language and, by implication, the Empire and its Church might well eventually come to suffer. The paper was significant in that it gave the first impetus to the work on the magnificent Oxford English Dictionary (the mighty OED). Because of the weaknesses outlined, Trench argued that there was therefore a need for a new dictionary written on historical principles. Such a dictionary, he argued, would record every word from its birth to its death, carefully documenting its shades of meanings. He considered a dictionary as “an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view; and the wrong ways into which a language has wandered or been disposed to wander, may be nearly as instructive as the right ones in which it has traveled: as much as may be learned, or nearly as much from its failures as from its success, from its follies as from its wisdom”. Trench’s criticism offers some useful insights to the neglected subject of etymology in Setswana, though we do not argue for Setswana dictionaries to be compiled on historical principles. The treatment of etymology in dictionaries for African languages is an important one, and yet one that is grossly neglected in African language lexicography in general.
There has been some interest in etymology in MLA Kgasa’s Thanodi ya Setswana ya dikole (Kgasa, 1976); Dikišinare ya Setswana English Afrikaans (Snyman et al, 1990); Thanodi ya Setswana (Kgasa & Tsonope, 1995) and English-Setswana-English (Matumo, 1993). Kgasa (1976) traces a word to the language of origin but does not give its etymon (a word in the source language). He has 239 headwords marked with etymology. Snyman et al (1990) just like Kgasa (1976) marks the source language of the etymon (the word), but does not give the etymon. Kgasa and Tsonope (1995) do not include any etymological markup in the dictionary. Matumo (1993) marks words as being of foreign origin (FOR) but doesn’t mark the source language or the etymon.
Historically Setswana has been, and currently is, in contact with Afrikaans, English, other local and regional languages (e.g. Zulu) languages. It is important that a dictionary must attempt to capture the degree of lexical influence from these languages in its pages. As a growing language, Setswana has been creating numerous words through a variety of word formation processes such as coining, blending etc. It is critical that the origins of such terms are preserved within the pages of a monolingual dictionary. The latest monolingual dictionary Tlhalosi ya Medi ya Setswana traces the etymology of over 10% of the entries. While this is a welcome development, much of the etymology information relates to borrowed terms. For instance the word jeme is traced to the English word jam. Other entries such as names of months have elaborate etymology where words are traced to other words and practices in the Setswana culture. For instance the word Firikgong which is traced to the dove mofiri which builds its nest using small pieces of word dikgong. The etymology therefore reads as follows: Kgwedi e e reilwe ka lephoi la mofiri kgotsa kofiri le le a beng le sela dikgonnyana, le aga sentlhaga, go tla le simolola go baya mae. Ka go nna jalo leina le le tswa mo go mofiri le dikgong.
We however still need to dig the roots of the Setswana language some more. For instance in my recent readings I have found that the words tlhobolo (gun) and lerumo (bullet) are old words which predate the coming of guns amongst the Batswana. The word tlhobolo used to mean a quiver for arrows. This meaning is archaic and no longer used. The term has been semantically extended to mean a gun. The word lerumo also used to mean a spear and it is now used to mean a bullet. The word tshane which is now common amongst the Bangwaketse as a surname has also fallen off from usage. It used to mean broad-bladed spear or sharpened stick used by herdboys. The name Tshosa, common amongst Ngwato royalty is sometimes mistaken to mean to scare off or to intimidate(assumed to be derived from the verb go tshosa: “to scare or frighten”), while it has an archaic meaning of a long spear with large blade.
There is therefore a need to dig the lost meanings of our words and store them in our dictionaries for the benefit of researchers and our children.