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Sesotho language:

Pronunciation [sɪ̀sʊ́tʰʊ̀]
Spoken in Lesotho Lesotho
South Africa South Africa
Total speakers at least 5 million
Ranking 112
Language family Niger-Congo
Official status
Official language in Lesotho Lesotho
South Africa South Africa
Regulated by Pan South African Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-1 st
ISO 639-2 sot
ISO 639-3 sot

Sesotho (Sotho, Southern Sotho, or Southern Sesotho[1]) is a Bantu language spoken primarily in South Africa, where it is one the 11 official languages, and in Lesotho, where it is the national language. It is an agglutinative language which uses numerous affixes and derivational and inflexional rules to build complete words.



  • The orthography used in this and related articles is that of South Africa, not Lesotho. For a discussion of the differences between the two see the notes on Sesotho orthography.
  • Hovering the mouse cursor over most italic Sesotho text should reveal an IPA pronunciation key (excluding tones).


Sesotho is a (narrow) Bantu language, belonging to the Niger-Congo language family. It is most closely related to three other major languages in the Sotho-Tswana language group: Setswana, the Northern Sotho languages (Sesotho sa Leboa), and Silozi. Sesotho is, and has always been, the name of the language in the language itself, and this term has come into wider use in English since the 1980s, especially in South African English and in Lesotho. It is also sometimes referred to as Southern Sotho, principally to distinguish it from Northern Sotho.

The Sotho-Tswana languages are in turn closely related to other Southern Bantu language groups, including the Tshivenḓa, Xitsonga, Inhambane, and Nguni languages, and possibly also the Makua languages of Tanzania and Mozambique.


A Mosotho woman holding up a sign protesting violence against women, written in her native Sotho language, at a National Women's Day protest at the National University of Lesotho. The sign translates as "if you do not listen to women, we will lose patience with you."

Standard Sesotho is remarkable in having little to no distinctive dialectal variation. Except for faint lexical variation within Lesotho, and except for marked lexical variation between the Lesotho/Free State variety, and that of the large urban townships to the north (e.g. Soweto) due to heavy borrowing from neighbouring languages, there is no discernible dialect variation in this language.

However, one point which seems to often confuse authors who attempt to study the dialectology of Sesotho is the term "Basotho" which can variously mean "Sotho-Tswana speakers," "Sesotho and Northern Sotho speakers," "Sesotho speakers," and "residents of Lesotho." The Nguni language Phuthi (also called Siphuthi) has been heavily influenced by Sesotho; its speakers have mixed Nguni and Sotho-Tswana ancestry. It seems that it is sometimes treated erroneously as a dialect of Sesotho called "Sephuthi." However, Phuthi is mutually unintelligible with standard Sesotho, and thus cannot in any sense be termed a dialect of Sesotho. The occasional tendency to label all minor languages spoken in Lesotho as "dialects" of Sesotho is considered patronising, in addition to being linguistically inaccurate, and in part serves a national myth that all citizens of Lesotho have Sesotho as their mother tongue.

Additionally, due to being derived from a language or dialect very closely related to modern Sesotho,[2] the Zambian Sotho-Tswana language Silozi is also sometimes cited as a modern dialect of Sesotho named "Serotse" or "Sekololo."

The oral history of the Basotho and Northern Sotho peoples (as contained in their diboko) states that Mathulare, a daughter of the chief of the Bafokeng nation (an old and respected people), was married to chief Tabane of the (Southern) Bakgatla (a branch of Bahurutse, who are one of the most ancient of the Sotho-Tswana clans), and bore the founders of five clans: Bapedi (by Mopedi), Makgolokwe (by Kgetsi), Baphuthing (by Mophuthing, and later the Mzizi of Dlamini, connected with the present-day amaNdebele), Batlokwa (by Kgwadi), and Basia (by Mosia). These were the first peoples to be called "Basotho", before many of their descendants and other peoples came together to form Moshoeshoe I's nation in the early 19th century. The situation is even further complicated by various historical factors, such as members of parent clans joining their descendants, or various different clans calling themselves by the same names (because they honour the same legendary ancestor or have the same totem).

An oft-repeated story is that when the modern Basotho nation was established by King Moshoeshoe I, his own "dialect" Sekwena was chosen over two other popular variations Setlokwa and Setaung, and that these two still exist as "dialects" of modern Sesotho. The inclusion of Setlokwa in this scenario is confusing, as the modern language named "Setlokwa" is a Northern Sotho language spoken by descendants of the same Batlokwa whose attack on the young chief Moshoeshoe's settlement during Difaqane (lead by the famous widow Mmanthatisi) caused them to migrate to present day Lesotho. On the other hand, Doke & Mofokeng claims that the tendency of many Sesotho speakers to say e.g. ke ronngwe instead of ke romilwe when forming the perfect of the passive of verbs ending in -ma (as well as forming their perfects with -mme instead of -mile) is "a relic of the extinct Tlokwa dialect."

Geographic distribution

Areas in which significant proportions of the population are Sesotho mother tongue speakers
Geographical distribution of Sesotho in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks Sesotho at home.
     0–20%      20–40%      40–60%      60–80%      80–100%      No population
Geographical distribution of Sesotho in South Africa: density of Sesotho home-language speakers.
     <1 /km²      1–3 /km²      3–10 /km²      10–30 /km²      30–100 /km²      100–300 /km²      300–1000 /km²      1000–3000 /km²      >3000 /km²

According to 2001 census data, there were almost four million first language Sesotho speakers recorded in South Africa — approximately eight per cent of the population. Sesotho is also the main language spoken by the people of Lesotho, where, according to 1993 data, it was spoken by about 1 493 000 people, or 85% of the population. The census fails, unfortunately, to record the at least five million further South Africans for whom Sesotho is a second or third language. Such speakers are found in all major residential areas of greater Johannesburg, Soweto and Tshwane, where multilingualism and polylectalism are very high.


Official status

Sesotho is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, and one of the two official languages of Lesotho.

Derived languages

Sesotho is one of the many languages from which the pseudo-language Tsotsitaal is derived. Tsotsitaal is not a proper language, as it is primarily a unique vocabulary and a set of idioms but used with the grammar and inflexion rules of another language (usually Sesotho or isiZulu). It is a part of the youth culture in most Southern Gauteng "townships" and is the primary language used in Kwaito music.


The sound system of Sesotho is unusual in many respects. It has ejective consonants, click consonants, a uvular trill, a relatively large number of affricate consonants, no prenasalized consonants, and a rare form of vowel-height (alternatively, advanced tongue root) harmony. In total, the language contains some 39 consonantal[3] and 9 vowel phonemes.

It also has a large number of complex sound transformations which often change the phones of words due to the influence of other (sometimes invisible) sounds.


The most striking properties of Sesotho grammar, and the most important properties which reveal it as a Bantu language, are its noun gender and concord systems. The grammatical gender system does not encode sex gender, and indeed, Bantu languages in general are not grammatically marked for gender.

Another well-known property of the Bantu languages is their agglutinative morphology. Additionally, they tend to lack any grammatical case systems, indicating noun roles almost exclusively through word order.


  1. ^ or Suto, or Suthu, or Souto, or Sisutho, or Sutu, or Sesutu etc. by various authors and sources during various periods. The language's name has not changed for the last 200 years, though.
  2. ^ To the extent that it even has several words which resemble Sesotho words with clicks:
    ku kala to begin (Sesotho ho qala)
    ku kabana to quarrel (Sesotho ho qabana)
    One could just as easily say that these words were imported from Nguni languages (ukuqala and ukuxabana, which is where the Sesotho versions come from), and the language does also contain words resembling click words from Nguni but not from Sesotho (such as ku kabanga to think, c.f. isiZulu ukucabanga).
  3. ^ 75 if you include the labialized consonants.

See also


  • Batibo, H. M., Moilwa, J., and Mosaka N. 1997. The historical implications of the linguistic relationship between Makua and Sotho languages. In PULA Journal of African Studies, vol. 11, no. 1
  • Doke, C. M., and Mofokeng, S. M. 1974. Textbook of Southern Sotho Grammar. Cape Town: Longman Southern Africa, 3rd. impression. ISBN 0 582 61700 6.
  • Ntaoleng, B. S. 2004. Sociolinguistic variation in spoken and written Sesotho: A case study of speech varieties in Qwaqwa. M.A. thesis. University of South Africa.
  • Tšiu, W. M. 2001. Basotho family odes (Diboko) and oral tradition. M.A. thesis. University of South Africa

External links

Sotho language edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia



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