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The Sesotho Language

Sesotho is a Southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa and Lesotho. It is the official language of Lesotho. In 1994 Sesotho became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of Sesotho speakers to be 3,555,182, which – at 8% of the population – makes Sesotho the seventh largest language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language can be found in Lesotho and the neighbouring South African province of the Free State. Lesotho is a small landlocked country entirely surrounded by – and economically dependent on – South Africa. For this reason many citizens of Lesotho live or work permanently in South Africa. Significant numbers of Sesotho speakers can also be found in the provinces of Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. 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.

Sesotho 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. Languages within these two groups tend to be mutually intelligible and the groups make up 47% and 25% of the South African population respectively. Sesotho forms part of the Sotho-Tswana language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, Setswana and Sepedi. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence Sesotho is commonly referred to as “Sotho.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. In older publications Sesotho is commonly referred to as “South Sotho.”

Lesotho is a kingdom that was established in the nineteenth century in the Drakensberg Mountains. Moshoeshoe, the founder of the kingdom, took refuge there during the Difaqane wars of Shaka and Mzilikazi. It was subsequently conquered by the British, and remained a British protectorate until independence in 1965. Throughout its history, Lesotho has been very economically dependent on the South African economy, notably through migrant remittances.

Sesotho is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. Like the other indigenous South African languages it is a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. The main regional dialects are Sekgolokwe, Setlokwa, Sekwena and Serotse (Selozi). Examples of phrases in the language include: Dumela (hello); O kae? (How are you?); Ke teng (I am fine).

Like the other official African languages, the written form was first codified by European missionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Along with isixhosa, isiZulu and Setwana, Sesotho was one of the first southern African languages to be reduced to writing. Sesotho was first codified by the missionaries Casalis and Arbousset of the Paris Evangelical Mission, who arrived at Thaba Bosiu in 1833. Compared to most other indigenous languages, Sesotho has established a strong literary tradition. Significant literary works include Thomas Mofolo’s, "Chaka", which has been translated into English and German, and ZD Mangoaela’s “Lithoko tsa Marena a Basotho” a collection of praises of Basotho chiefs.” Folklore occurs in both the oral and written forms, while traditional poetry, songs and dramas are still performed during wedding celebrations and other ceremonies.

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 “Qua Qua” was created in the then province of the Orange Free State (today the Free State), bordering Lesotho, to serve as the designated homeland of Sesotho speakers. This territory was subsequently reincorporated into South Africa.

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. The Sotho Language Board established spelling and grammar standards in the language, which formed the basis of subsequent teaching in schools. The language has been taught as both a subject and a medium in schools, although as a medium of instruction the language has not extended very far up the educational hierarchy.

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. The Sesotho 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. Sesotho is relatively well established in the mass media. In addition to Radio Lesedi, a national service, there are a number of regional stations. Sesotho shares a television channel with the other Sotho-Tswana languages. Other than regional newsletters, there are however no newspapers in the language.

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

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