The 16th Annual International AFRILEX Conference
UNAM, Windhoek, Namibia, 5-7 July 2011

[Abstract:] Kosch, I.M.: Challenges of predictability and consistency in the first comprehensive Sotho dictionary

This paper focuses on the lexicographic principles of predictability and consistency, with special reference to Endemann’s Wörterbuch der Sotho-Sprache, 1911 (Dictionary of the Sotho language). It is a monodirectional dictionary with Sotho as the source language and German as the target language. It can be regarded as the first attempt at a comprehensive dictionary, because the term ‘Sotho’ in the title refers to the three languages which are classified as the Sotho group of languages, namely Northern Sotho (also known as Sesotho sa Leboa or Sepedi), Southern Sotho (Sesotho) and Tswana (Setswana), spoken in South Africa and parts of southern Africa.

For a user to benefit maximally from his or her dictionary consultation experience, the information in a dictionary should ideally be arranged in a predictable and consistent order. This will ensure that the user will find the information where he or she expects to find it, and according to a predetermined pattern (obligatory microstructure). As pointed out by Gouws and Prinsloo (2005:16) a dictionary without a properly planned microstructural programme functions in an unsystematic way and violates the predictability criterion in situations where “the lexicographers decide in a haphazard way to include a certain data category in a specific article and omit it from the next”. Predictability and consistency are requirements which should run like a golden thread through the macro-, medio- as well as the microstructure of dictionary articles. Adherence to these requirements is one of the marks of a user-friendly reference work that will allow for easy access and trouble-free retrieval of required information.

Owing to the agglutinative nature of the Bantu languages, dictionary compilers had to be innovative in their methods of entry, either according to words or word stems or a combination of the two. In their Comprehensive Northern Sotho Dictionary, Ziervogel and Mokgokong (1975) followed the stem tradition for nouns and verbs, which means that all entries are entered under the first letter of the stem. Kriel (1983), on the other hand, while also following the stem tradition for verbs, used the word tradition for nouns in his Pukuntšu Woordeboek. Endemann also followed a stem approach like Ziervogel and Mokgokong, but with two major differences. The first difference is that in the case of nouns the prefix precedes the lemma (separated from it by a hyphen) instead of following it. The second difference is that, apart from isolated cases, all entries are presented as main lemmata. This affords quicker and easier access to items as one will not have to pick them out from amongst a long list of other sub-lemmata under a specific lemma. On the other hand, this approach obscures the interrelationship between words which are inflectionally or derivationally related, because they might be positioned far from each other under the same article stretch or they may even appear under another letter of the alphabet altogether. In Endemann’s dictionary, a noun such as mmopibopa ‘create’ by 18 other lemmata. For the user to find mmopi a higher level of access skill is thus required as well as knowledge of the sound change rules of the language. ‘creator’, for example, is separated from the verb stem -bopa ‘create’ by 18 other lemmata. For the user to find mmopi a higher level of access skill is thus required as well as knowledge of the sound change rules of the language.

The method of entry according to word stems requires more than just basic reference skills of the user and an understanding of the principles underlying this method. Any scholar, especially someone with no prior knowledge of the structure of a Bantu language, will find it difficult to look up the meaning of words without first consulting the explanatory introduction which should be part of any good dictionary. Even though Endemann provides users’ guidelines in the introduction, he relegated many observations to the individual entries themselves, making some dictionary articles disproportionately long. He was also not very consistent with the completion of paradigms. In the front matter he mentions that the reader should be able to easily complete the paradigms for him/herself.

Articles in Endemann’s dictionary do not always have the same microstructure. Some articles merely consist of a translation. In many cases the relevant sense of a lemma sign is not explained by means of its usage in a cotext. In other cases lengthy explanations and personal experiences or opinions are recorded as first item under the letter of an alphabet.

The paper aims to establish to what extent the challenges posed by the principles of predictability and consistency were met in Endemann’s dictionary and hopefully some interesting insights can be gained from this example of an early attempt at dictionary compilation to assist in continually improving the user-friendliness of dictionaries in the Sotho languages. Endemann’s dictionary has hitherto remained at the outskirts of scholarly investigation, the main reason probably being the fact that the target language is German and that, as such, it is not readily accessible to every scholar of the Bantu languages.


Endemann, K. 1911. Wörterbuch der Sothosprache. Abhandlungen des Hamburgischen Kolonialinstituts, Band VII. (Reihe B. Völkerkunde, Kulturgeschichte und Sprachen Band 4). Hamburg: L. Friedrichsen & Co.

Gouws, R.H & Prinsloo, D.J. 2005. Principles and practice of South African lexicography. Stellenbosch: Sun Press.

Kriel, T.J. 1983. Pukuntšu woordeboek (Noord-Sotho – Afrikaans, Afrikaans – Noord-Sotho). Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik.

Ziervogel, D. & Mokgokong, P.C. 1975. Groot Noord-Sotho woordeboek/ Comprehensive Northern Sotho dictionary. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik/Unisa.