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The Setswana Language

Setswana is a southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa and Botswana. It is the official language of Botswana and, since 1994, 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 Setswana speakers to be 3,677,010. At 8% of the population, Setswana speakers make up the fifth largest language group in South Africa. In South Africa most of the speakers of this language are situated in the North West province, which borders Botswana. There are also significant numbers of speakers in the Northern Cape and Free State provinces. 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.

Setswana 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. Setswana forms part of the Sotho-Tswana language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, Sepedi and Sesotho. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence Setswana is also commonly known as “Tswana” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. In many older publications this language is referred to as Western Sotho.

Setswana is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. The sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. Like the other indigenous South African languages, Setswana is also a tonal language. Among the dialects of Setswana are Sehurutshe, Seggalagadi (in Botswana) and Shilozi (in Namibia and Zambia). 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 of Setswana was first developed by European missionaries during the nineteenth century. Setswana was the first of the Sotho-Tswana languages to be codified. The standardized language is based on the Sehurutshe dialect. In 1806 Heinrich Lictenstein produced the book “Upon the Language of the Beetjuana” – under British rule Botswana was known as Bechuanaland. Dr Robert Moffat, of the London Missionary Society, arrived in Bechuanaland in 1818 and some years later began translating the Bible into Setwana. Moffat’s Bible was completed in 1857. The different spellings of “Setswana” reflect the various missionary attempts to codify the language spoken in different regions. The first contribution of a native Setswana speaker to the written language was that of Sol Plaatje, who – with the help of Professor Daniel Jones – wrote “Tones of Secwana Nouns” in 1929. Despite quite a long history of ecclesiastical writing, publication of literary works began only in 1940 – the year DP Moloto published his first novel “Mokwena.” This was followed by Motimedi in 1944. Another well known author was DPS Monyaise, who published a series of popular novels: Marara(1961); Ngaka Mosadi Mooka (1965); Bogosi Kupe (1967); Go sa Baori (1974) and Omphile Umphi Modise (1976).

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 “Bophuthatswana” was created in the region just south of Botswana and designated as the homeland of Setswana speakers in South Africa. Bophuthatswana subsequently became one four regional authorities that went on to accept independence or nominal sovereignty (none of the independent states were recognised outside 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. Although the Setswana Language Board made important technical contributions to the language, it also served as an instrument of Government control, screening out protest literature and restricting topics to “traditional” themes.

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 Setswana 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. Increasingly parents have been opting to have their children educated in English. Under the new national education system there has been a decline in the supply and demand for Tswana set work books. The language is however fairly well represented in other media. Setswana shares a television channel with other Sotho-Tswana languages and is used on two radio stations, Motswedi Radio and Radio Mmbatho. The multilingual newspaper, Seipone/Mirror uses Setswana, albeit not as frequently as English.

Perhaps the most famous Setswana speaker was the intellectual, journalist and writer Sol T Plaatje. Plaatje was a founding member of the South African Native National Congress – the forerunner of the African National Congress. In addition to his other achievements, Plaatje translated some of the works of Shakespeare into Setswana.

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

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