Ruminating on Consonants—Werinda Clover SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No 1 Contents The Most Amazing Linguistic Concert Event of the 21st Century—The SpecGram Promotional Board

The No. 1 Linguists’ Detective Agency

Found among the papers of Alexander McCall Smith by Keith W. Slater

ma Makutsi had just poured the tea. Red bush tea for M̥ma Ramotswe, and ordinary tea for M̥ma Makutsi, who preferred ordinary tea and had told M̥ma Ramotswe so, though not until after a long period of uneasiness and indecision. That had been in the early days of the Agency, before M̥ma Makutsi had become an Assistant Detective and had become engaged to the morphologist Phuti Redupliphuti, indeed even before M̥ma Ramotswe, who founded the Agency, had become the wife of Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni, the finest computational linguist in all of Gabarone, in all of Botswana, perhaps even in all of Africa. Botswana had been little different then, of course, but the lives of so many linguists had changed in those few short years. Lives were always changing, M̥ma Ramotswe reflected, and one could never predict beforehand in what way they would change.

What if, for example, M̥ma Makutsi had married Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni, and she herself, Polysemous Ramotswe, had become engaged to Mr. Phuti Redupliphuti, successful owner of the Doubled Clitic Morphology Shop? What if the lady detectives had, so to speak, traded partners, rather than choosing their current ones? No, one simply could not imagine Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni as the husband of Case Makutsi. Even so mild-mannered a man as he would have become cross (mildly cross, to be sure) at the unceasing reminders of the stratospheric and unprecedented 97% score which M̥ma Makutsi had received in the final exams at the Botswana Semantics College. The original certificate hung above M̥ma Makutsi’s desk in the Agency, but M̥ma Ramotswe was struck with an amusing image of copies of the certificate, all framed, hanging above M̥ma Makutsi’s dining table, above her bed, above her kitchen sink, and in many other conspicuous locations in M̥ma Makutsi’s house. No, Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni would not appreciate such self-promotion. He did not even keep copies of his own publications in his office.

Nor could she imagine herself, Polysemous Ramotswe, engaged to Phuti Redupliphuti. Phuti was a fine man, and an outstanding solver of morphological puzzles, to be sure, but there would certainly be difficulties if they tried to merge their lives while at the same time competing for linguistics business in so small a place as Gabarone, where just about everyone knew just about everyone else, or at least knew their relatives, and where small businesses had so little space to maneuver. Linguists who competed in the marketplace would inevitably encounter problems that would impinge on the harmony of their life at home. No such competition could arise between M̥ma Ramotswe and Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni, whose places of business, though they shared a building, served non-overlapping clientele.

It had not been so in the old Botswana, she reflected. No, in the old Botswana, the Botswana of her father, Ferdinand de Ramotswe, there had been only one Linguistic Agency, providing all kinds of linguistic services, and he had run it. “Ferdinand de Ramotswe was a good man,” someone had remarked to her in a shop just the previous day, when she had mentioned the name of her father, “a good man who knew his phrase structure rules well, who knew more about Langue than nearly anyone in Botswana.” She had been proud to hear her father spoken of in this way. He was a good man, a pioneering linguist, and she was proud to bear his name, and so to remind people of him.

The red bush tea steamed in her cup. It was the second cup of the morning. The third, if you counted the cup she took on her veranda at home, as the sun peeked over the horizon and Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni stirred in the bedroom, choosing an outfit for his talk at the Botswana Linguists’ Society Annual Meeting that morning. M̥ma Ramotswe was not attending the meeting this year, not because she disliked the meetings, which in fact she relished, but because she had unfinished business in two or three small cases which demanded her attention, and she felt that her duty to her clients outweighed her selfish desire to have a good time in the company of other linguists.

That, too, was the way of the old Botswana, and there was great wisdom in the old ways, even if modern people were too busy to remember them. In the old Botswana you were loyal to your commitments, and M̥ma Ramotswe made that her first priority. Stephen Anderson had even mentioned this in his book The Principles of Private Linguistics, in which he said simply “the client is your first priority; nothing else matters in linguistics.” Perhaps this was putting it a bit too stronglydid not data matter too?but the underlying principle was surely sound. If your client could not trust you, who could? And if other people could not trust you, how could you trust yourself? Yes, the old Botswana ways were full of wisdom, and people nowadays would do well to remember them.

M̥ma Ramotswe looked at her tea. One could not understand tea if one did not take time both to look at it and, indeed, to drink it. It was like linguistic data, and like detective cases, too, she thought. You had to consider them from various angles, and become familiar with them, before they yielded the results you were looking for. It was that way, for example, in the case of Mr. Polopetsi, who worked part-time in the agency and part-time in Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni’s laboratory. Mr. Polopetsi, who had previously, and wrongly, been arrested for dispensing case roles without license, and who had spent several years in prison, was now being censured again by the Botswana Linguists’ Professional Agency, this time for allegedly drawing trees with lines that crossed. M̥ma Ramotswe was sure that Mr. Polopetsi would not do such a thing, but she had no evidence to back up her certainty, and both Charlie and the younger graduate assistant who worked in Mr. N.L.P. Matekoni’s laboratory agreed that they had seen him do this. “R̥ra,” she had told him, “you must produce some documentation to show that you could not have done this thing. That is what you must do.” But Mr. Polopetsi had only shrugged his shoulders and folded his arms, a posture which struck M̥ma Ramotswe as a symbolically poor one to take, were he to take it before a judge hearing this particular charge, if in fact the charge should come to a hearing or even to a trial, which she hoped it would not. What judge would believe that you did not cross lines if you crossed your arms, or your legs, or some other obvious body part, while talking to him? Quite apart from the crossing of arms and legs, though, she wondered how Mr. Polopetsi’s problem could be solved. Surely the tea must have an answer.

M̥ma Ramotswe looked at her tea again, and noticed that it was cold. That was the way of things, was it not? Just when you had gotten started considering them, they turned cold and you had to start all over. Perhaps today would be like that, just as yesterday had been and indeed, just as nearly every day had been since the opening of the Agency.

“M̥ma Makutsi,” she said, “please make some more tea.”

“Yes, M̥ma, I will make more tea. That is what I will do,” said M̥ma Makutsi.

Ruminating on ConsonantsWerinda Clover
The Most Amazing Linguistic Concert Event of the 21st CenturyThe SpecGram Promotional Board
SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No 1 Contents