The Social Significance of Taboo Expressions in Sepedi Language

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Ramohlale M.I, Chauke O.R, Motlhaka HA


Taboo expressions are social influences involving behaviours specially designed to fit in with a group or the entire society. Taboo expressions were conditionally designed by African people to compel people to live according to socially prescribed rules and regulations; and to restrict African people to indulge in illicit acts. Although punishment for transgressing taboo expressions was not inescapable, African people went on to transgress them and most if not all suffered the consequences. The concept of a “taboo” is difficult to define. The word is borrowed from a Polynesian language. Taboo is defined as an element of all situations in which attitudes to values are expressed in terms of dangerous behaviour. A taboo has something to do with “sacredness”, something that may be “forbidden”, it may apply to a “person” or to a “thing” and may describe things that are “elements’ or “devoted” (Essel, 2018:2). In Sepedi language, taboo expressions are characterised by the words, ‘o se ke wa’ (do not). The prefixal morpheme ‘o’ is common to all taboos in Sepedi. ‘o se ke wa ṡupa dirapa’ (never point your finger at the graves), is one taboo expression that command respect among African people. The latter taboo, comes-up with the punishment threat if a person transgresses it; ‘o tla khokhoropana monwana’ (your finger will become scrabbly); the threat is not real but just to make people to respect the place of the dead. To other taboo expressions the threat is real; ‘o se ke wa kopanela dikobo le mohwana’ (never have sex with a woman who have just lost a husband). The terrifying consequences of the latter taboo expression is that the man will develop swollen legs (makgoma) which will ultimately lead to death.  It is therefore inevitable that taboo expressions in Sepedi can be divided into two; those that enforce acceptable social behaviour (harmless) and those that restrict people from indulging in wayward acts which may lead to death. Diawuo (2015:117) argues that taboos represent unwritten social rules that regulate human behaviour.” Although taboo expressions were not written; in their oral nature, they were able to be transmitted from African generation to the next. To enhance their permanent stay in African cultures, taboos formed part of oral traditional songs, poetry, folklore, riddles, games and different cultural plays; but it should always be remembered that they are ‘social rules that regulate human behaviour.

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