The keepers of language

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 indigenous-language dictionaries.

The SA National Lexicography Units, which are semi-autonomous 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.”

Multilingual society

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.”

Bilingual dictionaries

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.



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

Tell us and you could win a dictionary in your home language. SMS us on 35697. Please include your name, home language and town. SMSes cost R1.50

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Nappies, they cost too much
6% - 171 votes
Formula and food, it's getting so expensive
18% - 496 votes
Creche and school fees are a struggle every month
76% - 2143 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.