We start with a problem. What is the difference between like and love in Setswana? Conceptually, this matter raises no problems – that is, Batswana have no problems understanding what they intend to mean or what they mean in expressing the concepts of love or like. But lexically or on the basis of words, we are locked on one word rata which means both like or love. Therefore, if a Motswana says Ke a go rata it isn’t clear whether he or she means I like you or they mean I love you. A bigger problem arises when someone wishes to say: The truth is I don’t just like you, but I really love you. I posed this question to my Facebook friends and their responses were most interesting & some riddled with supreme hilarity. Here is a sample for your enjoyment: (1) Nnete ke gore ga ke go rate fela jaaka ke ka rata mongwe le mongwe, maikutlo ame mo go wena ke a lerato le le tseneletseng (2) boammaaruri ke gore,ga ke go kgatlhegele hela,ke go rata tota! (3) Boammaaruri ke gore ga kena keletso fela mo go wena, tota ke go rata bobe. (4) boammaaruri ke gore ke go rata la o ka swa aka go ja (5) Nnete ke gore month gase maikutlonyana fela mme ke a go rata toto-tota (6) Fa kere ke a go rata, ke raya gore ke go rata thata, joo ke boammaruri. (7) Nnete ke gore ga ke go rate ga matshamekwane ke shwaa dibaki! (8) Boammaaruri ke gore, ga ke go kgatlhegele fela – ke go rata ratirati (9) Ke go rata la o ka a swa nka go ja. (it’s the sense that matters, not the wording) (10) go bua nnete ke a go rata, there is no like in Setswana. (11) Nnete ke gore ga ke go rate, ke a ikepela mo go wena. Some of these offering as translations sound off the mark while others are purely tautological. Part of the reason for the tautology is because of the lexical ambiguity between like and love. Some are delightful Setswana which express love and not just like. For instance we say most ridiculous things like o ka a swa nka go ja, ke a ikepela or ke shwa dibaki. Obviously these are idiomatic expressions – but they demonstrate the richness of the language. Put differently, the roots of our problem lie in the homographical nature of rata – that is, rata is really one spelling of two, perhaps more, words.
The problems in the meaning of like/love are exacerbated by the semantic closeness of like and love. The Setswana word rata has a fairly wide semantic scope. Tom Brown’s 1875 dictionary gives the English equivalents to rata as love, like, wish, will. The 1993 revised edition of this dictionary gives love; like; will; wish; want as the English equivalents. The difference here is the small addition of the word want into the list. Rata can also mean an act done repeatedly: O rata go ya masimo means both He likes going to the lands and He habitually visits the lands. Batswana use the word rata to also mean nearly. For instance: O ne a kgotshwa mme o ne a rata go wa. “He tripped and nearly fell”. Collocationally we wish to find out which words occur after rata as its argument. The following are the typical collocates of rata: rata dilo (things), rata nama (meat), rata bobe (much), rata mosadi (woman), rata motho (person), rata ngwana (ngwana), rata mokgwa (personality), rata mosimane (boy), rata motshameko (game), rata dijo (food), rata bana (children), rata sekolo (school), rata diphologolo (animals), rata monna (man), rata Modimo (God), rata,nna (me), rata lefatshe (land/world), rata mosetsana (girl), rata khumo (wealth), rata botshelo (life), and rata basimane (boys). An inspection of our collocations doesn’t really resolve the problem. Does one like or love animals or does one like or love school?
The problem with the use of rata has raised questions about whether Batswana are serious about the word and concept of love. Why do they like to say Ke a go rata with such casualness? Do they mean I love you or I like you? Perhaps this explains why the Batswana men are never serious about relationships. Perhaps they, themselves, do not know the distinction between liking and loving. Perhaps they conflate a liking, a mere interest in somebody, as love. But here, dear reader we find ourselves bogged down on the distinction between the speaker’s intended meaning versus the meaning of a sentence. We find ourselves going beyond the meaning of words into the psychology, the intention of speakers. But can a speaker’s meaning exist independent of the sentence meaning? Rata is problematic as we have seen, since we don’t know whether it is used to mean love or like. But does that matter? Shouldn’t we be principally concerned with what a speaker does with rata? Doesn’t go rata bana (to love children) have a meaning beyond the meanings one’s feeling of children admiration? Doesn’t the meaning cover the idea of having one’s own children? Doesn’t it include a sense of responsibility to provide for them, to protect them and to ensure that they succeed in life? Certainly the meaning of loving children is far removed from that of the expression go rata basadi (to love women) which has a negative sense of womanizing, lack of commitment and multiple concurrent partners. Go rata Modimo (To love God) is also different since it refers to religious devotion and worship. Perhaps there is a dislocation between words and meanings. What we must attempt to find is what people mean, regardless of the words they use. The question that arises naturally is whether meanings reside in words or in the minds of speakers. Now, that is a topic for another day.