Words, history & location: Many tongues of Sesotho

Magical guides in everyday phrases

Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.

Chinua Achebe
- Things Fall Apart

I am Thapelo Mokoatsi a Mosotho born, bred, buttered and jammed in the small cattle farming town of Tikwana, the place also known as Hoopstad. I travelled 170 km to study at the University of the Free State to find out that words and the way I utter them is a magical guide to my history and origins.

Don’t get me wrong, I will soon be a Master of Africa Studies and so of course in the last seven years at UFS I have learned a lot more than this. I did not have the benefit of multi-racial or Model C schools. But I when I watched TV programmes I always had the burning desire to speak British English fluently or at least with the studied, intellectual air of a Thabo Mbeki.

I tried to imitate the British with their accent. But the sounds just would not come out as I had hoped. ‘Matter’ would land in my world as ‘meda’ no matter how often I practised. But I didn’t despair because my hero, Thabo Mbeki, spent decades in the UK but does not speak the Queen’s English the way she does. That made me smile and feel comfortable to speak Lizzie’s language with my Sesotho accent. In any case, surrounded by only Sesotho speakers, just mastering English was an achievement.

But my fascination with the way we speak – the way spoken language dominates the written word – has persisted. One of my favourite stories is how Juana Smith, the wife of the 19th Century Colonial Governor Sir Harry Smith one morning refused to eat bacon for breakfast as was the custom even then. Instead she ate melon and from that morning the Afrikaner servants who witnessed the departure from tradition, called melon Spaanse Spek or Spanish bacon. Modern pronounciation has turned it to Spanspek. We omit one a, the tongue gets accustomed to this and no one gets to ask about the etymology of this Afrikaans word.

But language is a complex affair. The spoken language helps us identify one another and often we make judgements and pigeon-hole people, based entirely on how they pronounce a few words. More importantly we can place people historically and geographically. I’ve started a little informal taxi (minibus) research of my own.

The Sesotho has different dialects spread across all the regions of the Free State. Sitting in a short taxi ride around Bloemfontein you can be taken on a linguistic tour around the province. Sesotho-speakers from Welkom have their own dialect and so do people from Ficksburg or other parts. I pride myself on being able to identify the differences in intonation and pronunciation by now.

When I walk around our campus I feel as if I am in the middle of a huge ocean and the currents are bringing all the different Sesotho dialects, transporting waves of sounds from all parts of the province into the melting pot of the UFS.

The Sesotho dialect from Hoopstad for example, has elements of Setswana and a bit of Afrikaans that is highly “sesothofied”. You are just going to have to accept that I can drive this word using my journalistic licence.
In our daily chats we normally say; “Ke tla tla mo go wena vandaga”. It means; “I will come see you today’.

Vandaga is Afrikaans for today. While someone from Welkom will probably say; “ke tla tla ho wena kajeno”. The meaning is basically the same but the latter is a purer form of Sesotho.

To someone like me who is from Hoopstad, when I hear kajeno I’m automatically able to pick up that the person is not my part of the Free State.

And all these differences fade away when we write. When we write we tend to opt for a much ‘purer’ and more formal form of Sesotho, or any other language for that matter.

Written language has grammatical laws reining it in while spoken language is a free flow phenomenon. A much more fascinating affair, replete with clues to our identities and cultures.

Catching a taxi from the main campus to Mimosa Mall is always an opportunity for me to continue my informal ‘research’. I can tell who comes from where just by listening to how each person speaks. Two people can say the same phrase;“O mo botse” or “O mo botse.” And, the one has nothing to do with the other. Both sentences are written the same way but because of their phonemes or sounds they have completely different meanings. The first one is Sepedi which means; “the one that is beautiful” while the second one is Sesotho which means; “Ask her or him.” O for both sentence refers to the person but take different sounds; mo also takes a different phoneme.

An interesting matter for reflection is the way people pronounce the name of my hometown, Hoopstad. The town was initially founded in 1876 and named Hauptstad after Mr Haupt, a surveyor. The translation of Hauptstad into Afrikaans means Capital, which it clearly wasn’t and the town was therefore renamed Hoopstad. And then along come Sesotho-speakers who dropped an O and added an A at the end. So now we have Hopstata, for this town that was established between the large Kameeldoorns farm and the Bultfontein hamlet in the grey gold-rich rocks of the Lejweleputswa district.

Now whether you say you are from Hopstata or Tikwana (the place on the little Tikwe River) how you introduce yourself matters a lot. When I met my former colleague, Dieketseng Mokoena from Tweeling, the other day I asked her to recite to her totem. She is ke Mohlakwana under the Bakoena clan. When she recited her totem it turned out we shared the same lineage.

She said: “Ke Mohlakwana wa ha Mmapholadisema, maila ngoathoana sa maobane. Ha re ja ho theha meriti e monyane ya diotlwana.”

In the past, when a man found that he shared the same totem with a woman, it was believed that they were siblings even though they had different surnames. My friend is a Mokoena and I am a Mokoatsi but we fall under the same clan and shared a totem. We Basotho use totems to recount our genealogy or family history.

The totems include information about the hierarchy of the clans. I am a Mokoena of Bahlakwana of Mmapholadisema. We end by describing our common characteristics. For example, a symbolic detail like the fact that we don’t eat left-overs.

One can say merely the words; “Hi I am Liteboho Molise”. If you are Sesotho-literate you can tell she was born at the time when her parents almost lost hope and as a result showed appreciation for her arrival. And Molise from the family of herdsmen, can be from either Bataung or Bakoena.

So armed with my knowledge of totems and my ear for regional indices or nuances, I went eavesdropping conversations in the taxi. Afterwards I asked Mphohadi Tsoai, a Central University of Technology Radiography student about the influences in her uniquely Welkom way of speaking.

She said: “In Welkom… there are so many people from different places because it’s a mining town. Xhosas are also there. Our unique language originates from the Basotho but because of different cultural influences the language lost its purity. That is why it’s spoken differently in Welkom compared to other places. We grew up to this as ‘normal’ Sesotho. We speak the language just the way it is although it is not pure.”

Thato Makhetha, a Masters’ student at UFS from Sterkspruit emphasised that: “By listening to Mphohadi one can tell that she is not used to speaking Sesotho all the time by the number of English words she used and the accent.”
By contrast Yondela Mwanda, a B Com student at UFS said: “I am not a Sesotho speaker therefore I am not able to differentiate between people from Welkom and Qwa Qwa or any other part of the Free State. But I can hear the difference between a South African Sesotho speaker and Mosotho from Lesotho. I have noticed the different accents and the words they use.”

Keneilwe Tladi from Welkom doing her BA at the UFS South Campus and who comes from a place not too far from my hometown said: “I lived in Bultfontein. The Sesotho dialect is highly influenced by Afrikaans. They always use words such as [mahuising le tanki] and you might say it’s kitchen language. Sesotho here is spoken differently primarily because of the other languages that dominate in the area.”

Then finally I spoke to my aunt, Motabo Makoko, and asked her why Sesotho in Hoopstad-Bultfontein area is full of Setswana and Afrikaans words and phenomes. She said: “It is because of local people who mixed with people from the Transvaal (now North West) [who are Setswana speakers] and the Boers whom black people worked for on the farms.”

That is why words such as mahuising or maheising and tanki and many more are sort of “trademarks” of Hoopstad. Mahuising refers to residence and is a word I learned from my domestic worker mother. She and her friends only used this word when talking about the homes of white people in the township, not the kasi places.While tanki comes either from the Afrikaans dankie, related to the German for danke.

Just listening to people speak on my daily commuting trips to the campus and back has taken me deep into our recent social history. I now understand more fully how Sesotho has been tangled with Setswana, Afrikaans and other languages because people have been working and living alongside each other.

My hometown Hoopstad, the place where I was buttered and jammed as the saying goes, is near Bloemhof that is in the North West province of Botswana. Our town was established around the biggest farm in the region called Kameeldoorns. My great-grandparents lived on this farm before the first kasi could be established.

Now many decades later Sesotho, like all other languages has been transformed – some would say lost its purity – and developed a unique Hoopstad dialect. We call Sehopstata or Sesotho sa Hoopstad.

Getting to my Masters in Africa studies is not only a trip through academia, I am also benefiting from the many taxi rides it takes for a student to graduate.

* Photo of people in a Soweto taxi by Frank Herholdt courtesy of the Imperial College London’s Department of Medicine.