That famous & overweight English lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, has defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” I must admit that detailing the signification of words is a most rewarding enterprise. Much has been done in this regard in the English language through a long impressive history of English lexicography and lexicology. A lot is however, yet to be done in Setswana, which is why in the last twenty years or so, there has been increased interest in the development and documentation of the Setswana language. As part of the larger interest in the development of the Setswana language, I wish to look at the seemingly similar Setswana verbs: leba, lebelela & bona. What is common about these verbs is that they refer to doing something with eyes. They are therefore what is known as perception verbs. Let’s start with a basic definition of what they mean. Leba is look in English. It suggests that you perceive something intentionally or for a specific reason. There is a sense that the perception happened for an unspecified length of time – that isn’t short though. Bona on the other hand is see in English. This verb suggests that what we perceive came into our range of vision without us intentionally seeking it. This explains why for instance we can ask somebody O ntibileng? and not O mponelang? This is because in the semantics of leba is embedded an intentional looking. One who raises the question O ntibileng? seeks the intentions or the purpose for which an act of perception is happening. Because of this, we better understand why a religious plea is made: Morena leba kwano! “Lord turn your face to us!”
The verb lebelela is watch in English. It suggests that you perceive something for a period of time, especially something that is moving. So someone o lebelela motshameko, because there is movement, o lebelela diphologolo, because there is movement. It is therefore most unusual to find someone a lebeletse an immovable object such as a stone, unless in the case where lebelela means something slightly different as in the case where it means to guard, care for or look after. Even in the case where someone o lebeletse tv, this is because there is activity on television. Lebelela is also used to idiomatically mean to leave something happen without your intervention – actually with you letting it happen.
I wish to consider these verbs in some detail. I begin with bona. Bona is a highly polysemous word. By that I mean it has multiple related meanings associated with it. It can mean to perceive using eyes. It can also refer to receive, make or earn something: O bona madi a mantsi ka go rekisa phane “He makes lots of money from selling mophane worm”. The word can also mean to understand something as in Jaanong ke a bona gore ga o nthate “Now I understand that you don’t like me”. We use bona to mean to meet somebody such as in Ke a go bona Kagiso kgantele “I am going to meet Kagiso later”. Finally bona is also used to mean to experience something as in O bone kotsi ya koloi “He has had a car accident”. Bona also collocates (co-occurs) with numerous words to generate multiple idiomatic expressions. For instance: bôna bontsho “fail to understand/have problems”, bona kgwedi “have a period” which is similar to “bôna setswalô”. We say bona koo! as a warning to someone to flee from danger. Bôna kotsi “have an accident”, bôna kwa mmu wa sekara o tlaa wêlang teng “see where things will end”, bona molato “find guilty”, bôna molomo “get to speak”, bona motho ka legofi “to slap somebody”, bona motho molato “convict somebody”, bona nako “find time”, bôna pelo “understand what somebody is thinking”, bôna phatlha “get an opportunity”, bona phoso “find fault with”, bona sebaka “get a chance/opportunity”, bona tlhabo ya letsatsi “wake up”, bona tsela “depart”. There is more that we can say concerning bona especially when considering its various conjugations. For instance ipona is reflexive. It literally means see one’s self as when someone sees themselves on a mirror. However ipona can be used to mean to be proud, to be full of yourself or to be conceited.
We have observed that leba is an intentional perception verb. We however also use leba to refer to the verb face. To face somewhere (of an individual or an inanimate entity such as a car or house) is described using the verb leba. This is because an intention is assumed in its use. A person intentionally faces somewhere or makes something face a certain direction. Leba is also used to mean the verb go. Fa ke tswa fa ke leba Ramotswa this sentence doesn’t mean that one faces in the direction of Ramotswa. It instead means that one goes to Ramotswa.
Leba also collocates with multiple words to generate idiomatic expressions. These include: leba ka leitlhô le le mosoka “consider something suspiciously” leba ka leitlhô le le nchocho “to look at something in detail/intensely”, leba ka nyelolô “to despise somebody”, leba tsela “to depart/go”.
Looking at the meanings of words and how they function in context is a very ancient preoccupation which has recently benefitted much from advances in computational work in the areas of corpus and natural language processing (NLP) in general.