We are a blessed nation. Over the past 30 years the government has spent billions of pula on educating many to degree level. Some of this education was acquired locally while some was acquired in foreign universities in the USA, UK, Germany, Russia, South Africa and many other countries. With this education has come a variety of accents of speaking English locally. Many demonstrate a more British or American accent, depending on where they were trained. This column is not about that subject, that is, how our foreign training influences the way we speak English. What I wish to concentrate on this week is how expatriates, especially English speaking ones in the country, influence the way we speak Setswana.
Setswana like all Bantu languages is a tonal language. What that means is that on the basis of tone we can make differences between words which are spelt the same way such as mosimanyana (small boy) and mosimanyana (small hole); lela (intestine) and lela (cry). The difference between lela (intestine) and lela (cry) is a tonal one. We say that lela (intestine) is a Low Low tone word while lela (cry) is a Low High tone word. The obvious difficulty with discussing tone through writing is that it cannot be demonstrated for the reader to hear. However, the problem that I wish to draw your attention to will become clearer as we develop this subject. Let’s start with problem number one. Many English speakers don’t make a difference between Setswana [p] and [ph]; [k] and [kh]; [t] and [th] at the beginning of words, or technically at the beginning of syllables. The linguistic way of explaining this is to say that for native English speakers [t, k, p] at the beginning of syllables or words is pronounced as [th, kh, ph]. The technical term for this phenomenon is known as aspiration, that is, the pronunciation of a sound accompanied by a rush of air. So instead of saying [p] they say [ph]. That is why the English word party is pronounced phathi and not pati. This is an English problem and not a problem for Batswana. Batswana are however able to make a distinction between [p] and [ph] at the beginning of words. That is why we have words such as pata, pala, pena which if you asked an English speaker to pronounce they would pronounce as phatha, phala, phena. These Setswana sounds without an [h] are technically said to be unaspirated. What is now disturbing is that there are native Setswana speakers who wish to be associated with the native English speakers and have turned their backs on the proper way of speaking the language and chosen the foreign pronunciation; literally to foreignize their pronunciation. They have made themselves foreign to their own tongue so that perhaps they may appear educated, rich, and belonging somewhere outside. This self alienation; a desertion of one’s country and tongue; a self exile; a linguistic flight from one’s home is most intriguing. Because of this linguistic disassociation from the base, we are increasingly seeing individuals pronouncing their names funny. Instead of Tiro we have Thiro; Thapelo has become Tha-pay-low; Thato is Thatho; Tumo is Thumo; Pako is Phakho; Koketso has become Khokhetsho. How are we to explain this distortion of one’s personal name, one’s basic tool of identification? It appears to me that there are two ways of looking at it. First there appears to be a wish to be foreign; a desire to be someone else; to place oneself outside the borders of one’s country and then reintroduce oneself as an outsider to the local culture and way of doing things. Second, the local person wants to claim adjacency to the expatriate. He wishes to shift towards the expatriate so that him and the expatriate are on the same level. He therefore assumes a foreign pronunciation of his own name, not so much because he wants to be foreign; but for the good of the expatriate, so that the expatriate will have no problems with articulating his Setswana name. Both positions are pathetic.
The second problem that I see is the mispronunciation of many of our place names. Now dear reader, please do pay attention to the pronunciation of many of our place names and you will see that they are increasingly being bastardized, especially in the media by sports and traffic reporters. I urge that next time you do pay attention. This is in particular more pronounced where these Setswana names are adjacent to other English terms. For instance, Mochudi Centre Chiefs is pronounced moCHUDI Centre Chiefs with stress on the last two syllables. The same is true for Old Lobatse Road which is pronounced Old loBATSE Road. Recently a student of mine called LeseDI pronounced his name as LeSEdi. More and more I hear Phakalane being pronounced as PhakhaLAne. This is ridiculous.
It appears to me that our education has alienated us from ourselves. We are like the local idiot, one who has taken a sip of his own urine; we are in perpetual flight from our own shadows. Since the larger part of our local education is not in Setswana and very little about Setswana, we have become foreigners to ourselves. We have attempted to anglicise not only our culture but also our language. Our language has become our shame. We have embraced English poetry, music and food with minimum criticism. We have subsequently changed our attire and our meals so that they become foreign. Now we want to change our names so that they could equally conform to a foreign identity. Lost are we if even within the borders of our country we are attempting to make ourselves foreigners to ourselves. Local foods have become a treat; local music has become exotic so that people gather to admire it. We must be ashamed of ourselves, but we are proud and delighted. We are actually struggling with ourselves and attempting to find ways of further alienating ourselves from ourselves. We justify all this by arguing that culture is dynamic, which is accurate; but ga e phepheulege; it is not in a constant state of flux. It is wise to pause and rediscover ourselves. We are Batswana and we will forever be. If we lose our Botswana identity, we are doomed to forever be foreigners to ourselves, to our culture, our tongue and land. Once this process is complete; we are dead.