This week, we continue with our focus on the eleven official languages of South Africa. According to the census for 2011, 3 849 563 speak Sesotho as a home language in South Africa, making it 7.6% of our population.
The Sotho language, also known as Sesotho, Southern Sotho, or Southern Sesotho,is a Bantu language spoken primarily in South Africa, where it is one of the 11 official languages, and in Lesotho, where it is the national language.
Sotho is a Southern Bantu language, belonging to the Niger–Congo language family within the Sotho languages branch of Zone S (S.30). It is most closely related to other major languages in the Sotho–Tswana language group: Tswana (Setswana), the Northern Sotho languages (Sesotho sa Leboa), Kgalagari (SheKgalagari) and Lozi (Silozi).
Sesotho is, and has always been, the name of the language in the language itself, and this term has come into wider use in English since the 1980s, especially in South African English and in Lesotho. Sesotho is the autoglottonym or name of the language used by its native speakers as defined by the United Nations. Sotho is the heteroglottonym. It is also sometimes referred to as Southern Sotho, principally to distinguish it from Northern Sotho.
The Sotho languages are in turn closely related to other Southern Bantu language groups, including the Venḓa, Tsonga, Tonga, and Nguni languages, and possibly also the Makua languages of Tanzania and Mozambique.
A Sotho woman holding up a sign protesting violence against women, written in her native Sotho language, at a National Women’s Day protest at the National University of Lesotho. The sign translates as “if you do not listen to women, we will lose patience with you.”
Except for faint lexical variation within Lesotho, and except for marked lexical variation between the Lesotho/Free State variety, and that of the large urban townships to the north (e.g. Soweto) due to heavy borrowing from neighbouring languages, there is no discernible dialect variation in this language.
However, one point which seems to often confuse authors who attempt to study the dialectology of Sotho is the term Basotho, which can variously mean “Sotho–Tswana speakers,” “Sotho and Northern Sotho speakers,” “Sotho speakers,” and “residents of Lesotho.” The Nguni language Phuthi has been heavily influenced by Sotho; its speakers have mixed Nguni and Sotho–Tswana ancestry. It seems that it is sometimes treated erroneously as a dialect of Sotho called “Sephuthi.” However, Phuthi is mutually unintelligible with standard Sotho, and thus cannot in any sense be termed a dialect of it. The occasional tendency to label all minor languages spoken in Lesotho as “dialects” of Sotho is considered patronising, in addition to being linguistically inaccurate, and in part serves a national myth that all citizens of Lesotho have Sotho as their mother tongue.
Additionally, due to being derived from a language or dialect very closely related to modern Sotho,the Zambian Sotho–Tswana language Lozi is also sometimes cited as a modern dialect of Sotho named Serotse or Sekololo.
The oral history of the Sotho and Northern Sotho peoples (as contained in their diboko) states that Mathulare, a daughter of the chief of the Bafokengnation (an old and respected people), was married to chief Tabane of the (Southern) Bakgatla (a branch of the Bahurutse, who are one of the most ancient of the Sotho–Tswana tribes), and bore the founders of five tribes: Bapedi (by Mopedi), Makgolokwe (by Kgetsi), Baphuthing (by Mophuthing, and later the Mzizi of Dlamini, connected with the present-day Ndebele), Batlokwa (by Kgwadi), and Basia (by Mosia). These were the first peoples to be called “Sotho”, before many of their descendants and other peoples came together to form Moshoeshoe I’s nation in the early 19th century. The situation is even further complicated by various historical factors, such as members of parent clans joining their descendants, or various clans calling themselves by the same names (because they honour the same legendary ancestor or have the same totem).
Sotho is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, and one of the two official languages of Lesotho.
Sotho is one of the many languages from which the pseudo-language ‘Tsotsi-taal’ is derived. ‘Tsotsi- taal’ is not a proper language, as it is primarily a unique vocabulary and a set of idioms but used with the grammar and inflexion rules of another language (usually Sotho or Zulu). It is a part of the youth culture in most Southern Gauteng “townships” and is the primary language used in Kwaito music.