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The SiSwati Language

SiSwati is a Southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa and Swaziland. It is the official language of Swaziland and, since 1994, is 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 siSwati speakers to be 1,194,428. At 3% of the population, siSwati speakers make up the third smallest official language group in South Africa. In South Africa most of the speakers of this language are situated in the eastern region of the Mpumalanga province, which borders Swaziland. 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.

SiSwati 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. SiSwati forms part of the Nguni language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, isiZulu, isiXhosa and isiNdebele. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence siSwati is commonly referred to as “Swati” (and has in the past also been referred to as “Swazi”). This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. The language is also sometimes referred to as Swazi or Seswati.

The Swazi people trace their origins to the Pongola river valley in present-day KwaZulu-Natal, from whence they migrated to Swaziland. A small group of Nguni-speakers became established in present day Swaziland in the early 18th century. By 1820 the monarch Sobhuza ruled over a kingdom that covered present-day Swaziland and extended into what is now Mpumalanga Province in South Africa. His successor, Mswati, united all the groups under him, thereby establishing the basis of the current kingdom. Swaziland was under British control from 1903 to 1968. Since independence Swaziland has nevertheless remained dependent on the South African economy, and many Swazi citizens live and work in South Africa.

Like the other indigenous South African languages, siSwati is a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. Closely related to isiZulu, the language has become more clearly distinguished in the last few decades through the process of standardization. There are two principle dialects: Thithiza and Yeyeza. These correspond with a north-south division, where the language of the South bears a stronger resemblance to isiZulu. Consequently, the dialect of the north is considered to be more standard, in large measure as a result of its association with the Royal household. The Swati spoken in Swaziland is commonly divided into four dialects, which correspond with the four administrative regions of the country: Hhohho, Lubombo, Manzini, and Shiselweni. Examples of phrases in the language include: Sawubona (hello); Unjani? (How are you?); Ngikhona (I am fine).

Like the other official African languages, written Swati was first codified by European missionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Until independence in 1968 most written material was produced for religious functions. After independence the language received a major boost. The new government gave priority to the publication of books for schools and as a result the number of literary works increased considerably. Numerous works covering the genres of prose, poetry and drama were produced, albeit exclusively for the school market. A similar situation occurred in South Africa in the 1980s, following the establishment of the KaNgwane authority.

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 self-governing “KaNgwane” territory was established on South Africa’s eastern border with Swaziland. 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 Swati Language Board was therefore established as part of an effort to standardize the language and facilitate its use in schools. Swati became established as a subject throughout the school curriculum, but despite the government’s commitment to mother-tongue instruction, was never used as a medium of instruction beyond grade 3.

Following the democratic transition of 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 official languages, both in terms of structure and in terms of everyday use. The siSwati Lexicography Unit has therefore been created and is responsible for developing terminology in the language. The development of siSwati has however, 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 siSwati speakers living in the larger cities are compelled to learn and speak other languages. siSwati 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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