or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, October 03, 2009


As I believe I have mentioned before, a guy named Fred Clark is masterfully deconstructing the dreadful "Left Behind" series a few pages at a time--he's up to page 104 of the second of twelve volumes--and it's essential reading. In this week's entry, a commenter had this to say about a word Clark used:

'Botswanan' is incorrect. Mwangati Ngumo is the Motswana president. He is not the leader of the Botswanans, but the Batswana.

All that is very interesting, and doubtless true in Botswana, but in the English language (which I cannot help but note the commenter is using), "Botswanan" and "Botswanans" are correct, for one simple reason: "Botswana" is an English word, and follows the rules of English.*

You hear this sort of thing from time to time. I knew someone of Greek parentage who said that "pi" is not properly pronounced as we always do in English, "pie", but "pee", to which I responded, "Well, what's the capital of France?" "Paris," he said, and pronounced it, of course, in the English manner, "par-iss". But if you're following his rule--that a word can only be properly pronounced as it would be in its country of origin--then the capital of France is "par-ee". And you'd better roll that "-r-", too.

"Pi" is properly pronounced "pie". "Detente" doesn't require the accent ("d├ętente"), although you are welcome to use it if you like, and it takes the indefinite artlcle "a", not "une". "Moscow" is spelled that way rather than either the Romanized ("Moskva") or the Cyrillic (approximately "Mockba") versions. All these these things are true in English, because those are English words. Every language does this, English perhaps more so than others if only because it has more adoptees than any other language. A language's users need to talk about place names in other countries, or they find a gap that can be remedied by borrowing a term from another tongue, but they don't import all that tongue's grammatical rules and spelling niceties and pronunciation quirks along with it: they take the word, naturalize it, and then do with it whatever they would do with any of their own words. This is as it should be, and more, it's as it is, always, everywhere. A moment's thought would reveal that it cannot be otherwise: are the speakers of any language expected to memorize every possible form of every word describing every nation and its inhabitants in that country's languages?

*The Wikipedia page for Botswana has this to say:

The official languages of Botswana are English and Setswana. In Setswana prefixes are more important than they are in many other languages. These prefixes include "Bo", which refers to the country, "Ba", which refers to the people, "Mo", which is one person, and "Se" which is the language. For example, the main tribe of Botswana is the Tswana people, hence the name Botswana for its country. The people as a whole are Batswana, one person is a Motswana, and the language they speak is Setswana.

This is tremendously interesting, but it has no application to English, of course (though doubtless it is a feature of Botswanan English, since that is one of the country's two official languages and it lives cheek by jowl with Setswana). But living languages are not carved in stone, and it's not inconceivable that such grammatical features could filter into Standard English: if Botswana became globally important and its representatives requested that the country's words be used in news reports, for instance. For now, though, we're following the rules of English, and if you asked pretty much any English speaker outside that country what the language or the people of Botswana were called, you know what they'd answer.


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