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Say What?

January 22, 2010

Language fascinates me. It has done since I was a child. I’m intrigued by the way we name things and why we use the words we do. I’m curious about what makes a polyglot decide to use one language for one phrase and another for another (when either will be understood). Is it habit? Does one language provide a better phrasing of the concept at stake than the other?

In Botswana almost everyone I’ve spoken to can get by in English (although it may be a limited conversation). Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the population also speak Setswana. Conversations are often held in Setswana but with chunks of English thrown in. Even the dialogue in soaps flits between languages, apparently at random (and frequently mid-sentence). I would love to see the scripts – to see if the splits are marked that way.

One of the things I find most fascinating about language is how it shapes our thoughts. Concepts are expressed in language, and so are limited by it. Every now and then artists come along and try to phrase concepts in art or music, but we invariably require them to “explain what it means” using language.

I’ve often wondered how much about concept is lost when translating from one language to another. I learnt recently what “Dumela” actually means. It’s what you say when you greet someone, so all the phrase books have it as “Hello/Good day.” It actually means “Believe.” When you greet someone with “Dumela” what you’re saying is, “You can believe in me – I mean you no harm.”

Knowing that puts a very different understanding on the requirement to greet everyone you meet. You’re not just saying hi, you’re also reassuring people as you move close to them that you have no intention of harming them. Knowing that makes it’s easier to understand why people might be upset if you don’t say it. Now that I understand the concept behind what I’m saying, I feel much less self-conscious saying it.

Of course, what this speaks to within the psyche and history of the Batswana is also interesting. I start official lessons today, so I hope I’ll learn more about the concepts behind the language of the Batswana and in turn gain a greater understanding of the people themselves.

Until then, sala sentle!*

*which actually means “stay well,” even though it’s used to say goodbye.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    January 22, 2010 2:15 pm

    We noticed this in TZ too, quite often a swahili term doesn’t exist for an english phrase or concept, so they just use the english. In some cases it’s simply a shorter word to say. “Happy birthday” for example is a whole sentence in swahili.

    But the part that I’ve always loved, is when the concept of a word is captured better in another language. We do this in english all the time, without realising – “raison d’etre” and “deja vue” pop to mind.

    George & I now slip in and out of swahili, we’re by no means fluent, but there’s some nice single-word concepts. “pole” (pronounced pole-ay) means “sorry”, but it’s not quite like english, it doesn’t express your sorrow for doing something wrong, it offers condolences for someone else’s misfortune. Thus “I’ve stubbed my toe!! -> “pole!”.
    we’ve developed it into a one-word sarcastic response to muppetry!

    • oneredsock permalink
      January 22, 2010 11:28 pm

      Haha! Genius! Muppetry needs more responses like that.

      I really like the way leavings are done here – the person staying says, “Go well” and the person leaving replies “Stay well.” It’ll be interesting to see which bits, if any, stay with me when I come back to the UK.

      I also find it interesting listening to the English used, having been translated from Setswana. It’s often very precise, almost old-fashioned words from a modern British English viewpoint, but far more specific than we’ve become. It’s pleasing to listen to, though confusion around pronouns can make story-telling a little difficult to follow on occasion!

  2. simon permalink
    January 26, 2010 8:15 am

    here its tokisio, which means see you later

    • oneredsock permalink
      January 28, 2010 6:41 pm

      cool – you’re picking it up already hey? I’m impressed! So when d’you fancy doing a guest piece? 😉

  3. January 30, 2010 2:55 am

    eeek!! not really fond of typing things, prefer to hide at the back of audience, will let you know when i get braver 😛

    • oneredsock permalink
      January 30, 2010 11:49 am

      hehe – I’ll ask you again in 3 months, how’s that? Have fun getting brave!

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