Today I struggle with translations of gender and sex terms. I use the term sex to refer to the maleness or femaleness of a living or imagined entity. I include in my definition here imagined entities to include such mythical creatures like Father Christmas and dimo. I use the term gender to refer to social constructs associated with individual maleness or femaleness. Sex is therefore a biological phenomenon while gender is a social one. I must concede that increasingly individuals are blurring this important distinction in daily use. Sex is therefore not used here to refer to sexual intercourse.
Let’s deal with the practice and linguistic facts. The word woman in Setswana is mosadi. The word man in Setswana is monna. Boy is mosimane while girl is mosetsana. The trouble comes when we translate the words male and female. Ideally we shouldn’t have a problem with the terms since they actually do exist in Setswana. They are tonanyana and namagadi respectively. The problem is that these Setswana terms only apply to animals and not to people. You can therefore talk of a goat, donkey or a cow as being tonanyana or namagadi. However you cannot refer to your elder sibling as either motonanyana or monamagadi. Ke na le nkgonne yo monamagadi or Ke na le nnake yo motonanyana are both unacceptable sentences in Setswana. So what terms are used generally to refer to males or females in Setswana? If the application forms are anything to go by then the words that are used are monna and mosadi. Now the problem with these terms is that they are gender terms and not sex terms. In other words the word mosadi in Setswana does not just mean human adult female and the word monna doesn’t just mean human adult male. It could, let’s not deny it. The words monna and mosadi are in semantic opposition to mosimane and mosetsana respectively along the age axis. The words monna and mosadi also have certain semantic extensions such as being married, strong, and responsible. For examples in many makgotla around Botswana only banna and basadi are allowed. This means that only married men and women are welcomed. One is reminded of the African classic, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo says to another man: This meeting is for men; in effect dismissing another man as less than a man and therefore unfit to sit amongst the rich and married elite of the village. In our villages basadi are women, in particular, married women. Actually, an unmarried woman is often called a girl or ngwanyana in many social gatherings while an unmarried man is usually referred to as a boy or mosimane. It appears that these pejorative terms were used to discourage bachelorhood and encourage individuals to marry. Mosadi and monna are therefore gender terms and not sex terms though they are frequently used as such. The additional problem with these two terms is that embedded in the semantics of monna and mosadi is the matter of age. Monna and mosadi refer to older persons and not to boys and girls. Imagine a scenario in which one is designing forms in Setswana for primary school learners and they want the learners to tick against either male or female box. What shall we label the boxes? Mosimane and mosetsana or monna and mosadi? What about application forms which are designed for men, women, boys and girls, as it generally happens with passport application forms? Which words shall we use to refer to male and female? We are stuck.
I have also been struck by the fact that while individuals can identify themselves as males or females in forms, they would not accept being called female or male referentially. Such terms are not used referentially. That is, it is unacceptable in English to say Come here you female! or Female come here! though it is perfectly OK to say I am male and I am not female. This cannot be said in Setswana. One cannot say Ke motonanyana, ga ke monamagadi since the words tonanyana and namagadi are applicable only to animals and not to humans. The closest one can say is either Ke monna ga ke mosadi which translates to I am a man and not a woman or Ke mosimane ga ke mosetsana ‘I am a boy and not a girl’.
But why would Setswana lack terms for male and female which refer to humans and only have such terms for animals? Part of the explanations may be that such distinctions have been necessary in the identification of a Motswana’s livestock. One can imagine one asking Is the animal male or female? I would suppose that the distinction between men and women; boys and girls have always been without question and therefore not lexicalized. Though I must accept that people have always asked about the sex of the child. Ke mong? The answer: Ke mosimane or ke mosetsana. Again the answer is not just about gender, it is about age too. Historically, the need to fill forms as it happens in banks and applications has not existed until fairly recently. The lack of human sex terms in Setswana is unique and more studies need to be done to compare the Setswana scenario with that of other African languages. We leave this chapter open for further research.