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The Sepedi Language

Sepedi is a southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa. It is, since 1994, one of nine indigenous languages to enjoy official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of Sepedi speakers to be 4,208,986. At 9% of the population, Sepedi speakers make up the fourth largest language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are situated in the Northern Province. There are also significant numbers of speakers in the Gauteng and Mpumalanga. This summary explores the linguistic derivation of the language, the history of written codification and dialectal variation, and recent attempts to standardize the language in South Africa.

Sepedi forms part of the “Southern Bantu” group of African languages, which in turn forms part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The Central subgroup is further subdivided into geographical regions, each designated by a letter. The S-Group covers much of southern Africa and includes the two major dialect continua of South Africa: the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana language groups. Sepedi forms part of the Sotho-Tswana language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, Setswana and Sesotho. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence Sepedi is also commonly known as “Pedi.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. In many official South African publications the language is also commonly referred to as “Sesotho sa Leboa.” This literally means “Northern Sotho” – the name by which it was commonly known in earlier years. See the note on dialects below.

As a political unit, the term “Pedi” refers to the people living within the area that was ruled by the Maroteng dynasty during the 18th and 19th century. This period nevertheless saw many fluctuations in the boundaries of this dominion, and following this the processes of relocation and labour migration scattered its former subjects widely during the 20th century. The present-day Pedi area, Sekhukhuneland, is located between the Olifants River (Lepelle) and its tributary the Steelpoort River (Tubatse) and is bordered on the east by the Drakensberg mountains. At the height of its power the Pedi kindom under Thulare (c. 1790-1820) included an area stretching from present-day Rustenburg in the east to the lowveld in the west, and as far south as the Vaal river. The kingdom was defeated by British troops in 1879.

Sepedi is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. Like the other indigenous South African languages, Sepedi is also a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. The dialects of Sepedi have been grouped into six clusters: South Central (Kopa, Ndebele Sotho), Central (Pedi, Tau, Kone), North Western (Tlokwa, Hananwa, Matlala, Moletši, Mamabolo), North Eastern (Lobedu, Phalaborwa, Kgaga, Dzwabo) Eastern (Pai), and East Central (Pulana, Kutswe). Examples of phrases in the language include: Dumela (hello); O kae? (How are you?); Ke gona (I am fine).

Like the other official African languages, the written form was first developed by European missionaries during the nineteenth century. Missionaries adopted the dialect of the people of Sekhukhune as the basis of the written standard. This region is strongly associated with the term “Pedi”, for which reason the term “Sesotho sa Leboa” is preferred by many as a coverall-term for related dialects.

Most of the literary works that have been produced in Sepedi date from 1940. These include novels, dramas, short stories, essays, poetry, traditional literature, grammar manuals and dictionaries. Significant works include EM Ramaila’s Tša bophelo bja Moruti Abram Serote and DM Phala’s Kxomo 'a thswa. More recent writers include P Mamogobo, OK Matsepe and SPP Mminele.

During the apartheid period, the ruling National Party’s policy of Grand Apartheid was built on a vision of ethno-linguistically discrete territories for South Africa’s indigenous population. Beginning after 1960, the widely condemned “Bantustan” policies of Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd resulted in the creation of ten self-governing territories in predominantly rural areas of South Africa. Thus the independent territory of “Leboa” was created in the northern part of the country and designated as the homeland of North Sotho speakers.

Under apartheid separate language boards were also created for each of the nine standardized indigenous languages. These boards effectively appropriated the work language development that had previously been done by missionaries. Although the Northern Sotho Language Board helped to standardize the language, this effect was counteracted by its association with the apartheid education system.

Following the democratic transition 1994 responsibility for language policy and development now rests with the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. A new body – the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) – was also created and charged with responsibility for language planning. PanSALB has sought to facilitate the further development of the language, both in terms of structure and in terms of everyday use. The Sepedi Lexicography Unit has therefore been created and is responsible for developing terminology in the language. The development of the language in education has proven to be especially difficult. While the language is taught as a subject at all levels, it is only used as a medium of instruction in certain schools from grade 1 to grade 3.

The development of Sepedi has proved to be a difficult task as the heartland of the language is located in a predominantly rural and relatively poor region. Migration to urban areas has grown and Sepedi speakers living in the larger cities are compelled to learn other languages. Sepedi remains a predominantly spoken language. While it is well represented on TV and radio, there are no newspapers in the language.

For translation services into this language please visit > South African Languages Translation Service.

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