Dr ‘Masechaba Mokhathi-Mbhele, the National University of Lesotho (NUL) linguist and the author of the book “Sesotho Personal Names as Minimal Pairs”, argues that Basotho have a tendency to give personal names that come in opposites to their children (she calls these names Lihanani (opposites) and she has a ton of examples to prove it.

For instance, Amohelang vs Ntsekiseng (accept vs take it away from me), Mpitseng vs Ntelekeng (call me vs drive me off), Utloanang vs Loanang (live in harmony vs fight), Lifelile vs Halifele (they are finished vs they don’t get finished).

So, you thought Basotho names were just randomly given? “That is not the case,” Dr Mbhele said. “Our studies reveal that names have more to do with the experiences of the awarders. Names express feelings and emotions. Names narrate incidents that took place and names are anchored on culture.”

Study names and find out why they were given and you will have a deeper understanding of that society. To drive a point home, she quotes a linguistic theory which says, “You cannot divorce language from its society or social members.”

Interestingly, as she studied names, she recognised something quite interesting.

Basotho names come in opposites. She coined a topic for her study, “Polarity in Basotho names.” Polarity means opposite ends— negative vs positive, right vs wrong, give vs take, good vs bad, south vs north, cold vs hot.

Here are but limited examples of polarity in Basotho personal names, she has many: Nepo vs Fosa (right vs wrong), Buang vs Tholang (talk vs keep quiet), Mofuthu vs Serame (hot vs cold), Keteng vs Haleeo (I am here vs you are away), Nkemeleng vs Ntšieng (wait for me vs leave me), Hopolang vs Lebalang (remember vs forget), Lumelang vs Hanang (agree vs disagree), Lenepa vs Lefosa (one who gets it right vs one who gets it wrong), ‘Nete vs Thetso (truth vs lie).

But these opposite names also follow some particular structures or patterns, she said. Of course some are just opposites. However, consider the following opposites that follow some patterns.

Some names are opposites but share the same prefixes (hlooho ea lentsoe). Consider these examples: Lenka vs Lebea (one who takes vs one who puts down), Moratuoa vs Mohlouoa (the loved one vs the hated), Liatile vs Lifelile (they have multiplied vs they are finished), Litšoane vs Liphapang (the similar vs the different), Ntšoareng vs Ntloheleng (hold me vs leave me alone), Letuka vs Letima (one who burns something vs one who puts off fire). Check these names and notice ‘Le,’ ‘Mo,’ ‘Li,’ ‘N’ and ‘Le,’ as prefixes in these opposite names respectively.

Some opposite names mark time. Take for instance; Bosiu vs Motšeare (night vs day).
Some opposite names are associated with counting; Noosi vs Babeli (One vs two).

Some opposite names mark different periods; Ngoahola vs Isao (last year vs next year).
Some opposite names show action (cause to do); Leemisa vs Leoisa (one who makes things stand vs one who makes them fall). Notice the use of “-is-” in both names.

Some opposite names show passiveness (something that suffers action); Motholuoa vs Molahluoa. Again, notice the use of the words “-uo-.”

Some are adjectives (describing words) of size; Liholo vs ‘Nyane (the big one vs the small one). Others mark colour; Mosoeu vs Mantšo (whitey vs darky). It is interesting that both names are awarded to men but are opposites.

Some names identify gender `Mantle vs Rantle (Mother of beauty vs father of beauty). Others are aesthetic or cocooning and such include Tšoeute vs Tšoani (whitey vs darky) and they mark male and female respectively.

Some opposite names are formed from the conjunction called “feela” (just); Nthofeela vs Mothofeela (just a thing vs just a human being). The opposites here are “ntho” vs “motho.”

There are also opposite names that show difference; Mothoosele vs Nthoesele (a different person vs a different thing). “Yes, some Basotho have called their children nthoesele, which means rubbish,” Dr Mbhele said. “Some foreigners are shocked that we call our children names such as “rubbish.”

“We do.”

Again, the opposites in those names are found in motho vs ntho (human vs a thing).

Some names show the person speaking, the person spoken to and the person being spoken about.

For instance, those that show a person speaking; Kelumetse vs Kehanne (I agreed vs I refused), Nkemeleng vs Ntšieng (wait for me vs leave me), Nkhopoleng vs Ntebaleng (remember me vs forget me), Mpine vs Nthole (Sing about me vs keep quiet about me).

There are those that show a person spoken to; Buang vs Tholang (speak vs keep quiet), Botsang vs Arabang (ask vs answer), Utloanang vs Loanang (live in harmony vs fight), Mpheng vs Nkoneng (give me vs don’t give me).

There are those that show a person spoken about; ‘Mitseng vs Molelekeng (call her vs reject her), Liatile vs Halieo (they are many vs they are not there).

There are opposite names for which the second negates the first; Llang vs Selleng (cry vs don’t cry), Lifelile vs Halifele (they are finished vs they do not get finished). Some correspond but are opposites and such are Khumamang vs Emang (kneel vs stand up).

Lastly, there are those that are both positive yet opposite; Moroeroe vs Phutheho (a ray (of hope), alone, a small thing vs a bigger group).

Yes, Basotho carry names in which so much experience has been buried and, surprisingly, such names come in polar versions. When a person carries a name ‘Neheng (give me), or Ntsekiseng (take away from me), there may be deep meanings and events buried in those names.

In future, Dr Mbhele will discuss what those names may actually mean in context.