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Pronunciation [sɪ̀sʊ́tʰʊ̀]
Native to Lesotho, South Africa
Ethnicity Basotho
Native speakers
5.6 million (2001–2011)[1]
7.9 million L2 speakers in South Africa (2002)[2]
Latin (Sotho alphabet)
Sotho Braille
Signed Sotho
Official status
Official language in
South Africa
Regulated by Pan South African Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-1 st
ISO 639-2 sot
ISO 639-3 sot
Glottolog sout2807[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUT-ee incl. varieties 99-AUT-eea to 99-AUT-eee
The Sotho Language
Person Mosotho
People Basotho
Language Sesotho
Country Lesotho

The Sotho language (/ˈst/;[5] also known as Sesotho, Southern Sotho, or Southern Sesotho[6]) is a Southern Bantu language of the Sotho-Tswana (S.30) group, spoken primarily in South Africa, where it is one of the 11 official languages, and in Lesotho, where it is the national language.

Like all Bantu languages, Sesotho is an agglutinative language, which uses numerous affixes and derivational and inflexional rules to build complete words.


Sotho is a Southern Bantu language, belonging to the Niger–Congo language family within the Sotho-Tswana branch of Zone S (S.30).

"Sotho" is also the name given to the entire Sotho-Tswana group, in which case Sotho proper is called "Southern Sotho". Within the Sotho-Tswana group, Sotho proper is most closely related to Lozi (Silozi), with which it forms the Sesotho-Lozi group within Sotho-Tswana.

The Northern Sotho group is geographical, and includes a number of dialects also closely related to Sesotho-Lozi. Northern Sotho language. Tswana is also known as "Western Sotho".

The Sotho-Tswana group is in turn closely related to the other Southern Bantu languages, including the Venḓa, Tsonga, Tonga, and Nguni languages, and possibly[clarification needed] also the Makua (zone P) languages of Tanzania and Mozambique.

Sotho is a tribal name, i.e. the name of the Sotho people or Basotho, while Sesotho is the term for the "language of the Sotho". Use of Sesotho rather than "Sotho language" in English has seen increasing use since the 1980s, especially in South African English and in Lesotho.


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."

Except for faint lexical variation within Lesotho, and for marked lexical variation between the Lesotho/Free State variety and that of the large urban townships to the north (such as Soweto) due to heavy borrowing from neighbouring languages, there is no discernible dialect variation in this language.

However, one point that seems to often confuse authors who attempt to study the dialectology of Sotho is the term Basotho, which can variously mean "Sotho–Tswana speakers," "Sotho and Northern Sotho speakers," "Sotho speakers," and "residents of Lesotho." The Nguni language Phuthi has been heavily influenced by Sotho; its speakers have mixed Nguni and Sotho–Tswana ancestry. It seems that it is sometimes treated erroneously as a dialect of Sotho called "Sephuthi." However, Phuthi is mutually unintelligible with standard Sotho and thus cannot in any sense be termed a dialect of it. The occasional tendency to label all minor languages spoken in Lesotho as "dialects" of Sotho is considered patronising,[7] in addition to being linguistically inaccurate and in part serving a national myth that all citizens of Lesotho have Sotho as their mother tongue.

Additionally, being derived from a language or dialect very closely related to modern Sotho,[8] the Zambian Sotho–Tswana language Lozi is also sometimes cited as a modern dialect of Sotho named Serotse or Sekololo.

The oral history of the Sotho 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 the Bahurutse, who are one of the most ancient of the Sotho–Tswana tribes), and bore the founders of five tribes: Bapedi (by Mopedi), Makgolokwe (by Kgetsi), Baphuthing (by Mophuthing, and later the Mzizi of Dlamini, connected with the present-day Ndebele), Batlokwa (by Kgwadi), and Basia (by Mosia). These were the first peoples to be called "Sotho", 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 clans calling themselves by the same names (because they honour the same legendary ancestor or have the same totem).

An often repeated story is that when the modern Sotho 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 Sotho. 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 (led 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 Sotho speakers to say for example ke ronngwe [kʼɪʀʊŋ̩ŋʷe] instead of ke romilwe [kʼɪʀuˌmilʷe] when forming the perfect of the passive of verbs ending in -ma [mɑ] (as well as forming their perfects with -mme [m̩me] instead of -mile [mile]) is "a relic of the extinct Tlokwa dialect."

Geographic distribution[edit]

Geographical distribution of Sotho in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks Sotho at home.
Geographical distribution of Sotho in South Africa: density of Sotho home-language speakers.

According to 2001 census data, there were almost four million first language Sotho speakers recorded in South Africa – approximately eight per cent of the population. Sotho 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 Sotho 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.[citation needed]

Official status[edit]

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

Derived languages[edit]

Sotho 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 Sotho or Zulu). It is a part of the youth culture in most Southern Gauteng "townships" and is the primary language used in Kwaito music.


Main article: Sesotho phonology

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


Main article: Sesotho grammar

The most striking properties of Sotho 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sotho at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Webb, Vic. 2002. "Language in South Africa: the role of language in national transformation, reconstruction and development." Impact: Studies in language and society, 14:78
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Southern Sotho". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  5. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  6. ^ Historically also Suto, or Suthu, Souto, Sisutho, Sutu, or Sesutu, according to the pronunciation of the name.
  7. ^ by whom?
  8. ^ to the extent that it even has several words that resemble Sotho words with clicks:
    ku kala to begin (Sotho ho qala [hʊǃɑlɑ])
    ku kabana to quarrel (Sotho ho qabana [hʊǃɑbɑnɑ]),
    one could just as easily say that these words were imported from Nguni languages (ukuqala and ukuxabana, which is where the Sotho versions come from), and the language does also contain words resembling click words from Nguni but not from Sotho (such as ku kabanga to think, c.f. Zulu ukucabanga).
  9. ^ 75 if you include the labialized consonants.


  • 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[edit]


Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sotho_language — Please support Wikipedia.
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. A portion of the proceeds from advertising on Digplanet goes to supporting Wikipedia.
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103 news items

Screen Africa (press release)
Thu, 17 Sep 2015 03:19:55 -0700

“We aim to offer viewers something that will delight them, be it through the exploration of the Sotho language or telling the infamous tale of the Marashea Gang. This is the kind of drama that celebrates a cultural legacy and we hope that the audience ...

Media Update

Media Update
Wed, 16 Sep 2015 06:14:09 -0700

We aim to offer viewers something that will delight them, be it through the exploration of the Sotho language or telling the infamous tale of the Marashea Gang. This is the kind of drama that celebrates a cultural legacy and we hope that the audience ...


Thu, 10 Sep 2015 02:02:14 -0700

Elliot is part of a team of researchers and cavers, led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger, who excavated the remains of the creature now known as Homo naledi, or “star” in the Sotho language. “This fossil will be probably one of the best known hominin ...
Mmegi Online
Fri, 04 Dec 2015 01:33:45 -0800

We also hinted that the term appears in two basic forms in many of their ancient texts: as sha and cha and that, even today, the Tswana language prefers sha while the Sotho language goes with cha for the verb 'burn'. This week, we concentrate on the ...

Science News for Students

Science News for Students
Mon, 28 Sep 2015 04:03:45 -0700

The fossils his team has just recovered come from a new species. They've named it Homo naledi. The word naledi means star in South Africa's Sotho language. “We don't know how old these fossils are,” Berger said September 9 during a news conference.


Thu, 17 Dec 2015 09:40:07 -0800

The music was overtly political: anti-regime, pro-resistance. The New York Times once reviewed a Malopoets show at the celebrated world-music venue SOB's in Manhattan. The Malopoets' songs, the article noted, were mostly sung in the Sotho language ...

The Guardian

The Guardian
Sat, 12 Sep 2015 16:05:17 -0700

The remains have been assigned to a new human species called Homo naledi (naledi means “star” in the Sotho language). However, despite the wealth of information about the physical characteristics of H. naledi that this collection provides, many ...


Wed, 21 Oct 2015 23:36:28 -0700

"Kagiso" may mean peace in Rabada's Sotho language but he doesn't shy away from using aggression on the field, where his hostile short ball rises extremely quickly and is highly effective. "After the game there will be peace but during the contest ...

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