Go Tlhotlhomisa Setswana: Creating Meaning Through Verb Affixes

Second in a series exploring the structure of Setswana, my adopted language.  The intent of these pieces is not to teach readers Setswana, but rather to introduce them to its beauty, richness, and system of logic.

My boys were lingering too long at the water tap on a break during a recent Grassroots Soccer practice.  I turned to one of the boys near me.  “Tell them if they don’t hurry back,” I warned, “They’ll be punished.”

He happily complied.  “Ey, majents!  Tsamaisa!  Le tla panishwa!” he hollered.  “Hey, gentlemen!  Hurry!  You will be punished!”

His hollering demonstrated brilliantly the way in which meaning is created in Setswana through its verbs and affixes.  Setswana’s propensity of verb affixes – at last count, I had at least a dozen – lends it an incredible richness and gives an insight into its underlying logic. One can create a constellation of meanings by attaching different prefixes and suffixes to a root verb.  By adding the causative suffix –isa to the verb root “go tsamaya” (to walk, to go), the learner changed the meaning of the verb to “to cause to go” – in other words, “to hurry.”  Adding the passive suffix –wa to the verb “go panisha” (to punish) to form “go panishwa” changed the meaning of the verb to “to be punished.”

These affixes sometimes create some delightful exercises in linguistic logic.  Adding the causitive suffix to “go tla” (to come) to form “go tlisa” changes the meaning to “to cause to come;” in other words, “to bring.”  Simlarly, adding the causitive prefix to “go reka” (“to sell”) to form “go rekisa,” meaning “to sell.”  During class one day, I told a learner, “Jika setilo” (“Turn your chair”).  Confused, he looked at me.  I repeated my instructions.  When, another learner whacked him on the head and clarified my meaning by saying, “Jikisa setilo” (“Cause your chair to turn”), he complied immediately.  His confusion gave me an insight into the logic of Setswana: chairs and other inanimate objects obviously cannot turn themselves.  Affixes in Setswana occasionally give a more figurative meaning: adding the causative suffix to “go gola” (“to grow”) gives the meaning “to develop.”

Setswana also recognizes different suffixes for the transitive and intransitive.  While the English verb “to dissolve” refers to both what I do to sugar in tea and what sugar itself does in tea, Setswana gives these verbs, with related but different meanings, different suffixes: compare “Ke tlhaolosa sukiri mo teeng” (“I dissolve the sugar in the tea”) with “Sukiri e tlhaologa mo teeng” (“The sugar dissolves in the the tea”).  Similarly the verbs “go tlhalosa” (“to explain, to describe”) and “go tlhaloganya” (“to understand”) are done by people in opposite roles of the same process.

These verb affixes often replace other parts of speech. To ask someone to buy bread for me, I attach the reflexive prefix (“n-”) and the prepositional transitive suffix (“–ela”) to the root verb “go reka:” “Nrekela borotho.”  The reciprical suffix, “–ana,” implies a reciprical action: for example, “go ratana,” meaning “to love each other” and“go dirisana,” meaning “to do together, to cooperate.”  Consider another example, “go bona.”  Though the meaning of the root verb is simple enough – “to see” – the word takes on at least six additional meanings through its affixes.

–       The –ana suffix creates the verb “go bonana,”meaning “to see each other.”

–       The –isa suffix implies “to cause to”: “go bonisa” translates to “to cause to see,” in other words, “to light up, to illuminate.”

–       The –tsha suffix is similar to the –isa suffix; “go bontsha,” translates “to cause to see,” or simply “to show.”

–       The n-/mp- prefix implies to do to the speaker: “go mpona” means “to see me.”

–       The i- prefix, by contrast, means to do to oneself: “go ipona” describes both the action of seeing oneself (as in a mirror) and being egotistic.

–       The –agala suffix is described in my grammar manual as “Becoming (Causative Neutral)” a vague description that I cannot seem to improve upon: “go bonagala” means “to become visible.”

Speakers of all languages, I think, speak in metaphors.  Doing so is simply a richer way of understanding the world and communicating this understanding.  I have come to understand Setswana’s verb affixes as a kind of literary device which create systems of literal and metaphorical meaning from a single root.

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