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The Xitsonga Language

Xitsonga is a Southern African language spoken by more than 3 million people in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. There are more than 1.5 million speakers in Mozambique. In 1994, Xitsonga 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 Xitsonga speakers to be just under 2 million. At 4% of the population, Xitsonga speakers make up the eighth largest language group in South Africa. In South Africa most of the speakers of this language are situated in the Northern Province, which borders Mozambique. There are also a significant number of Xitsonga speakers in Mpumalanga and the industrialized province of Gauteng. 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.

Xitsonga 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 five major dialect continua of southern Africa: the Nguni languages; the Sotho-Tswana languages; the Chopi languages; the Shona languages; the Tswa-Ronga languages and the Venda languages. Xitsonga forms part of Tswa-Ronga language group, and is therefore closely related to the other predominantly Mozambican languages in this group, Tshwa and Ronga. Xitsonga nevertheless also has distinct Nguni influences, the source of which can be inferred from the brief history provided below. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence Xitsonga is commonly referred to as “Tsonga.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. Other names commonly used for this language include Shitsonga, Thonga, Tonga, Shangana and Shangaan.

The term "Shangaan" derives from the name of the Zulu warrior, Soshangane, who conquered the Tsonga people during the nineteenth century. At its zenith Soshangane’s ‘Gaza empire’ stretched from the Chipinge area in modern day Zimbabwe, southward to the modern day Gaza province in Mozambique. Over time, the Tsonga subjects became known as "mashangane" or "machangane". The use of the term "Tsonga" to designate the Tsonga people is a more recent phenomenon, one which has gained much wider acceptance among the people.

Xitsonga is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. Sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. Like the other indigenous South African languages, Xitsonga is a tonal language. There are numerous regional varieties of Xitsonga, including Xinkuna, Gwamba (Gwapa), Xiluleke and Xinhlanganu (Shihlanganu). Examples of phrases in the language include: Avuxeni (hello); Ku njhani? (How are you?); Ndiyaphila (Ndzi kona).

Like the other official African languages, written Xitsonga was first codified by European missionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Xitsonga was reduced to writing in 1883 and numerous novels, short stories, plays and anthologies of poems have been written in the language. The first literary work was DC Marivate’s novel “Sasavone”, published in 1938. Other well known writers were the poet EM Nkondo (Emahosi), the novelist TH Khosa (Madyisambitsi), and the novelist MJ Maluleke (Hi ya kwihi).

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 “Gazankulu” was created in the northern Transvaal (today the Northern Province), to serve as the designated homeland of Xitsonga speakers. This territorial authority was subsequently reincorporated into the Northern Province administration.

Under apartheid, separate language boards were also created for each of the nine standardized indigenous languages, including Xitsonga. The Tsonga Language Board played an important role in the development of terminology and the standardization of orthography. It also had a screening role, limiting protest and restricting content to “cultural” issues. The old board was disbanded in 1994 and its functions were eventually transferred to a new national body.

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. Under PanSALB there are now a Tsonga Language Unit and a Tsonga Lexicography Unit. The former promotes the use of the language, while the latter 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 both primary and secondary level, it is only used as a medium of instruction in grades 1 to 3. As with Tshivenda, the linguistic distance from the other languages and the relatively small number of speakers pose considerable problems for the development of Xitsonga. The heartland of the language is situated in a remote rural area. Increasingly young Xitsonga speakers are compelled to find work in the towns and cities, where they invariably end up using one or more of the stronger South African languages. The Northern Province is also one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. Given the geographical proximity of the South African Tsonga region to Mozambique, there is a considerable level of in-migration from this country. While Xitsonga is used on radio, it has a somewhat marginal status on television. There are no Xitsonga newspapers.

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

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