The keep­ers of lan­guage

Words are the build­ing blocks of all lan­guages and, to this end, var­i­ous lex­i­cog­ra­phy units, set up around SA, have been hard at work record­ing our new words and sav­ing the old ones from ob­scu­rity, writes Mmanaledi Mataboge-Mashetla

CityPress - - News -

Have you ever won­dered what we would do with­out dic­tio­nar­ies? They are our first ref­er­ence when we need to find the def­i­ni­tion or spell­ing of a word. In ad­di­tion, they ex­plain how to pro­nounce the word, tell us its ori­gin and how to use it, and pro­vide syn­onyms. In short, the hum­ble dic­tio­nary cod­i­fies words, the build­ing blocks of ev­ery lan­guage. New words are added to all spo­ken lan­guages all the time. And, al­though the Ox­ford Dic­tio­nar­ies Word of the Year, an an­nual se­lec­tion of a word or ex­pres­sion that has at­tracted in­ter­est over a year, in­vites much fan­fare – like “post-truth” did in 2016 – all lan­guages are evolv­ing.

The same ap­plies in the case of our own 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages and the wealth of other in­dige­nous lan­guages around us.

With 17 in­dige­nous-lan­guage dic­tio­nar­ies al­ready printed and pub­lished, and more com­ing out over the next few months, South Africans have a range of re­sources to con­sult for their African lan­guages. But lit­tle is known about th­ese in­dige­nous­lan­guage dic­tio­nar­ies.

The SA Na­tional Lex­i­cog­ra­phy Units, which are semi­au­tonomous sub­struc­tures of the Pan SA Lan­guage Board (PanSALB), are at the fore­front of pro­duc­ing dic­tio­nar­ies and other ma­te­ri­als for ev­ery of­fi­cial lan­guage. The aim is to el­e­vate th­ese lan­guages’ sta­tus and ad­vance their use. Copy­rights of th­ese dic­tio­nar­ies be­long to the state. On their web­site, the lex­i­cog­ra­phy units set out their mis­sion as fol­lows: “Th­ese dic­tio­nar­ies are pro­duced as the first step in ful­fill­ing our con­sti­tu­tional and leg­isla­tive man­date to South Africa’s in­dige­nous lan­guages in or­der that all state agen­cies, gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, schools, ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions, the pri­vate sec­tor and in­di­vid­u­als might ful­fil theirs.”

Hav­ing de­clared Fe­bru­ary to be Lan­guage Ac­tivism Month – a cam­paign aimed at en­cour­ag­ing South Africans to speak and live their lan­guages and cre­ate a more mul­ti­lin­gual so­ci­ety – PanSALB held dic­tio­nary pro­mo­tion ac­tiv­i­ties all week in Jo­han­nes­burg and dis­trib­uted dic­tio­nar­ies free of charge.

Ter­ence Ball, ad­viser for lan­guage pol­icy im­ple­men­ta­tion at the lex­i­cog­ra­phy units, ex­plained how it works to City Press.

Each of­fi­cial lan­guage in South Africa has its own lex­i­cog­ra­phy unit, com­pris­ing a team of dic­tio­nary mak­ers. Each unit is lo­cated in of­fices ac­cord­ing to its re­spec­tive lan­guage. Ball is the pub­lisher of th­ese dic­tio­nar­ies.

The na­tional lex­i­cog­ra­phy units were formed 20 years ago, but Ball said some of them, such as the isiXhosa lex­i­cog­ra­phy unit, “were pre­dated by dic­tio­nary units in uni­ver­si­ties such as Fort Hare”.

De­spite in­dige­nous-lan­guage dic­tio­nar­ies be­ing pub­lished for years now, they are used mainly by univer­sity stu­dents, aca­demics and the lan­guage units of a few gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, said Ball. “They have not been wholly em­braced,” he ad­mit­ted. “We are try­ing to put them in book­shops, but the mar­ket has not been good. Many book­shops only re­quest the dic­tio­nar­ies when some­one has placed an or­der.”

Ideally, school­child­ren should all be learn­ing in their mother tongues and own a dic­tio­nary in that lan­guage.

Re­search con­ducted by the UN Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion has shown that “chil­dren’s first lan­guage is the op­ti­mal lan­guage for lit­er­acy and learn­ing through­out pri­mary school”.

Other re­searchers have con­sis­tently main­tained that teach­ing in one’s home lan­guage re­sults in greater aca­demic suc­cess and higher re­ten­tion rates.

“We have a sit­u­a­tion in South Africa where the ma­jor­ity of learn­ers are study­ing in a lan­guage that is not their mother tongue,” Ball said.

“We are plan­ning to work closely with the depart­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion, as well as pro­vin­cial ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ments, to de­velop ma­te­ri­als that can be used by teach­ers. Then we can deal with dif­fer­ent di­alects.

“The chal­lenge is that ev­ery­one sees their di­alect as the cor­rect one, so we need to bring uni­for­mity to that.”

Cur­rently, the dic­tio­nar­ies avail­able are a mono­lin­gual Setswana dic­tio­nary called Than­odi ya Setswana, an isiNde­bele one called Isih­lathu­l­uli-mezwi sesiNde­bele and a Tshiv­enda one, Thalusamaipfi ya lu­ambo-luthihi. Se­sotho has also been catered for, with Pukuntsutl­halosi ya Se­sotho sa Le­boa, and there is an isiZulu one, Isic­haza­mazwi sesiZulu.

The Xit­songa mono­lin­gual and bilin­gual dic­tio­nar­ies, as well as the siSwati ones, are due to be pub­lished next month. Bilin­gual dic­tio­nar­ies are also avail­able for al­most all lan­guages. All na­tional lex­i­cog­ra­phy units, ex­cept two – Xit­songa in Nkowankowa, in Lim­popo, and isiZulu in Dur­ban – are based at uni­ver­si­ties: Setswana at North West Univer­sity’s Mahikeng cam­pus; South Sotho at Univer­sity of the Free State; isiXhosa at the Alice cam­pus of Univer­sity of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape; Se­sotho sa Le­boa at Univer­sity of Lim­popo; Tshiv­enda at Univer­sity of Venda, also in Lim­popo; isiNde­bele at Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria; and siSwati at Tsh­wane Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy’s Nel­spruit cam­pus. Ball said more work still needed to be done on the dic­tio­nar­ies. “For most of our in­dige­nous lan­guages, th­ese dic­tio­nar­ies must be seen as the first edi­tions that will be im­proved.”

For lan­guages to con­tinue to evolve and re­flect the chang­ing re­al­i­ties of how we speak or text each other, the lan­guages need to be cod­i­fied, kept up to date and spo­ken. Hence, the lex­i­cog­ra­phy units’ role in pre­serv­ing and up­dat­ing our lan­guages.

TALK TO US How would you say “selfie” in your mother tongue?

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