28 February 2004

Is Sesotho "quaint?"

It is strange to see or hear others referring to your mother tongue in an offish manner, as something distant and as something most probably quaint and little-known. Kind of like saying "Timbuktu" when you want to indicate that something is far. Henry, in answer to what he calls an annoying question, says

"One of the things I find most annoying about telling people I study linguistics is that one of their first questions is usually some variation on 'What other languages do you know?' Answer: none. English and nothing else. Oh, sure, as much French as I can recall (very little), as much Latin as I can manage (often less), bits and pieces of random languages like Hebrew and Sesotho. Now, out of fairness, a lot of linguists work in other languages; but the work I do (or, well, intend to do) is more theoretical and, until we have a perfect understanding of English, English will do nicely for study."
So, yes, I guess Sesotho is quaint and can safely be used to indicate "difficult to learn" or "little-known." According to FAO, the population of Lesotho in 1999 was 2 108 000, which translates into that many Sesotho speakers. Ethnologue tells us that the number of South Africans who speak Sesotho was 2 704 000 in 1995. That's a grand total of 4 812 000. Add a few linguists around the world who speak some Sesotho and the grand total does not budge. The ethnologue entry for Swahili is
1,000 in South Africa (1987 Schreck and Barrett); 92,000 to 97,000 in Kenya (1980): 5,000,000 first language speakers in all countries (1989 Holm); 30,000,000 second language speakers in all countries (1989 Holm). Chatsworth, an urban area close to Durban on the Natal coast. Also in Uganda, Tanzania, Mayotte, Rwanda, Burundi, UAE, and USA. Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, G, Swahili (G.40). Zanzibaris brought from Zanzibar and northern Mozambique from 1873 to 1878. Coastal. Market gardeners. Muslim. Braille Scripture in progress. Bible 1891-1952. NT 1879-1989. Bible portions 1868-1968.
Case closed. We are quaint and little-known. Which is precisely why we're interesting.... But that's another story.

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