‘Have we become slow to give names?’ Asks NUL Linguistics Masters Student

Originally Published by NUL Research and Innovations


The on-going study by the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Linguistics Masters student, Maky Letsie, was sparked by a WhatsApp message from a friend (Refiloe Lephoi). Basotho, according to the message, call ATM “mochine,” laptop “mochine,” pencil sharpener “mochine,” nail cutter “mochine,” beautiful car “mochine,” washing machine, “mochine,” and a best performing student, “mochine.”

Of course there is nothing wrong with “mochine” since “all the above words have a machine-like element in them,” Maky said. “But can we introduce variety when giving names?”

“I am aware that in Sesotho people are named according to family, tribe, clan, heredity, current situations such as weather, pregnancy conditions, current events in the family and so on,” Maky explains.

The challenge, however is this: “imagine inheriting a name that was initially triggered by topical events of the day, which no longer exist today. Then naming and use of language become static.”

So Maky has a suggestion, “what if we apply the same concept of naming people and things according to the current events rather than purely inheriting names?”

She argues that Sesotho is a very rich language and should be treated as such. Just a single example, Sesotho distinguishes the second subject pronoun ‘you’ in that it uses the different forms when addressing plural (lona) and singular (uena) form but, guess what, English language doesn’t.

“Which begs the question,” Maky said. Have we, sort of, like, forgotten how to give names, despite our rich language?

“Well, does it really matter at all?” critics quip.

“Well, it matters,” she answers. Consider this: “If we fail to give names in our own language, how can we truly harness the power of technology?” she inquired.

She then added, “I am also a student of French and English Language but every time I peer into my own language, Sesotho, I am like, oops! Things are kinda static this side.”

So what solutions does she propose? “Let us learn to name entities,” she said.

Actually, she advocates the development of a system of giving names that would be standard. That, she says, will make it easy for us to name even newcomer technologies. It’s not like this is new or something. We have done it in the past.

This is how we used to give names.

Naming by association with family or clan: If someone’s name is Letsie, we know she is from the Kuena clan, Tumane (Makhoakhoa clan) and Pokane (Bonghani, of Matebele or those of the Nguni/Zulu origin) and so on.

Naming by association with events: for instance, we have “’Malehloa,” (the mother of snow), a child born during snowfall or snowy season. We have “’Malerole,” (the mother of dust) born in times of dusty seasons or dusty dry years (like those born in the famous 1933 drought).

Names with hidden meaning (connotation): “Ts’eliso” (consolation), “Rets’elisitsoe” (we are consoled) and “Molefi” (a payer), the list goes on.

But the problem is, “if we just inherit such names without bringing in any new ones that mark topical events of today, are we still creative?” She asks.

“Nowadays we do have people with such names without any connotation meaning attributed to them. Indeed some people admitted that they were named based on the hierarchy of names in their families, hence inheritance,” she said.

Other ways of naming are interesting and very creative. For instance, she said, Basotho call traffic lights “Liroboto” (robots), not because of how the words traffic lights sounded to them but because of their purpose (they function as robots).

She said there is also brilliance in borrowing words that don’t necessarily equate to what was being translated such as calling radio “Oelese” (wireless) instead of “retio” as some have attempted to do.

“By so doing, we also avoid the trap of a lazier way of naming such as giving names by description,” she said. For instance, why should we call a car “sepalangoang” (that on which we ride) instead of using the already existing Sesotho word “koloi”?

Perhaps this is why we can’t provide an appropriate word for prostate cancer than just describing it via a clause in Sesotho.

Yes, we also borrowed words especially from Afrikaans, French and English which we have made them perfectly sound like Sesotho, “kharafu” (graaf in Afrikaans), “pompong” (bonbon in French), “buka” (book in English).

However, note that the way of Sesothofying the words via borrowing is not random but follows what she calls “the Sesotho sound patterns (phonology), internal structure of words (morphology), and word order (syntax).”

Also, appreciating the names of things that already have equivalences in Sesotho can be of great help. For instance, continuously calling spoon “khaba,” cricket ball “libeke” and basket “seroto” is spot-on.

Despite these handy ways to give names, we still use “cup” “cell-phone,” “cable,” “calculator, “TV,” “WhatsApp” as everyday “Sesotho.” Are they?

One study at the University of Cape Town (UCT) finds that people are more likely to benefit as a nation from the fruits of modern technology if they create content and apps in their local languages.

“Allowing creativity, appropriate borrowing and standardizing our naming in Sesotho can help us come up with new words even in the technological world,” she concluded.