Tswana language

Last updated

Native to
Ethnicity Batswana
Native speakers
(4.1 million in South Africa (2011)
1.1 million in Botswana cited 1993) [1]
unknown number in Zimbabwe
7.7 million L2 speakers in South Africa (2002) [2]
Latin (Tswana alphabet)
Tswana Braille
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 tn
ISO 639-2 tsn
ISO 639-3 tsn
Glottolog tswa1253
Linguasphere 99-AUT-eg
The Tswana Language
Geographical distribution of Setswana in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks Setswana at home.
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80-100% South Africa Tswana speakers proportion map.svg
Geographical distribution of Setswana in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks Setswana at home.
Geographical distribution of Setswana in South Africa: density of Setswana home-language speakers.
<1 /km2
1-3 /km2
3-10 /km2
10-30 /km2
30-100 /km2
100-300 /km2
300-1000 /km2
1000-3000 /km2
>3000 /km2 South Africa Tswana speakers density map.svg
Geographical distribution of Setswana in South Africa: density of Setswana home-language speakers.
  <1 /km²
  1–3 /km²
  3–10 /km²
  10–30 /km²
  30–100 /km²
  100–300 /km²
  300–1000 /km²
  1000–3000 /km²
  >3000 /km²

The Tswana language (Setswana) is a Bantu language spoken in Southern Africa by about 8.2 million people. [1] It is a Bantu language belonging to the Niger–Congo language family within the Sotho-Tswana branch of Zone S (S.30), and is closely related to the Northern Sotho and Southern Sotho languages, as well as the Kgalagadi language and the Lozi language. [3]


Setswana is an official language and lingua franca of Botswana and South Africa. Tswana tribes are found in more than two provinces of South Africa, primarily in the North West, where about four million people speak the language. An urbanised variety, which is part slang and not the formal Setswana, is known as Pretoria Sotho, and is the principal unique language of the city of Pretoria. The three South African provinces with the most speakers are Gauteng (circa 11%), Northern Cape, and North West (over 70%). Until 1994, South African Tswana people were notionally citizens of Bophuthatswana, one of the bantustans of the apartheid regime. The Setswana language in the Northwest Province has variations in which it is spoken according to the tribes found in the Tswana culture (Bakgatla, Barolong, Bakwena, Batlhaping, Bahurutshe, Bafokeng, Batlokwa, Bataung, Bakgatla and Bapo, among others); the written language remains the same. A small number of speakers are also found in Zimbabwe (unknown number) and Namibia (about 10,000 people). [1]


The first European to describe the language was the German traveller Hinrich Lichtenstein, who lived among the Tswana people Batlhaping in 1806 although his work was not published until 1930. He mistakenly regarded Tswana as a dialect of the Xhosa, and the name that he used for the language "Beetjuana" may also have covered the Northern and Southern Sotho languages.

The first major work on Tswana was carried out by the British missionary Robert Moffat, who had also lived among the Batlhaping, and published Bechuana Spelling Book and A Bechuana Catechism in 1826. In the following years, he published several other books of the Bible, and in 1857, he was able to publish a complete translation of the Bible [ citation needed ]. [4]

The first grammar of Tswana was published in 1833 by the missionary James Archbell although it was modelled on a Xhosa grammar. The first grammar of Tswana which regarded it as a separate language from Xhosa (but still not as a separate language from the Northern and Southern Sotho languages) was published by the French missionary E. Casalis in 1841. He changed his mind later, and in a publication from 1882, he noted that the Northern and Southern Sotho languages were distinct from Tswana. [5]

Solomon Plaatje, a South African intellectual and linguist, was one of the first writers to extensively write in and about the Tswana language. [4]



The vowel inventory of Tswana can be seen below. [6]

Front Back
Close i/i/u/u/
Near-close e/ɪ/o/ʊ/
Open-mid ê/ɛ/ô/ɔ/
Open a/a/

Some dialects have two additional vowels, the close-mid vowels /e/ and /o/. [7] The circumflex on e and o in general Setswana writing is only encouraged at elementary levels of education and not at upper primary or higher; usually these are written without the circumflex. [8]


The consonant inventory of Tswana can be seen below. [9]

Labial Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Central Lateral
Nasal m
Plosive Unaspirated p  b
/p/  /b/
t  d
/t/  /d/
Aspirated ph
Affricate Unaspirated ts
/tʃ/  /dʒ/
Aspirated tsh
Fricative f
Trill r
Approximant w

The consonant /d/ is merely an allophone of /l/, when the latter is followed by the vowels /i/ or /u/. [10] Two more sounds, v/v/ and z/z/, exist only in loanwords.

Tswana also has three click consonants, but these are only used in interjections or ideophones, and tend only to be used by the older generation, and are therefore falling out of use. The three click consonants are the dental click /ǀ/, orthographically c; the lateral click /ǁ/, orthographically x; and the palatal click /ǃ/, orthographically q. [11]

There are some minor dialectal variations among the consonants between speakers of Tswana. For instance, /χ/ is realised as either /x/ or /h/ by many speakers; /f/ is realised as /h/ in most dialects; and /tɬ/ and /tɬʰ/ are realised as /t/ and /tʰ/ in northern dialects. [12]


Stress is fixed in Tswana and thus always falls on the penult of a word, although some compounds may receive a secondary stress in the first part of the word. The syllable on which the stress falls is lengthened. Thus, mosadi (woman) is realised as [mʊ̀ˈsáːdì]. [13]


Tswana has two tones, high and low, but the latter has a much wider distribution in words than the former. Tones are not marked orthographically, which may lead to ambiguity. [14]

go bua/χʊ búa/"to speak"
go bua/χʊ bua/"to skin an animal"
o bua Setswana/ʊ́búa setswána/"He speaks Setswana"
o bua Setswana/ʊbúa setswána/"You speak Setswana"

An important feature of the tones is the so-called spreading of the high tone. If a syllable bears a high tone, the following two syllables will have high tones unless they are at the end of the word. [15]

simolola/símʊlʊla/ > /símʊ́lʊ́la/"to begin"
simologêla/símʊlʊχɛla/ > /símʊ́lʊ́χɛla/"to begin for/at"



Nouns in Tswana are grouped into nine noun classes and one subclass, each having different prefixes. The nine classes and their respective prefixes can be seen below, along with a short note regarding the common characteristics of most nouns within their respective classes. [16]

1a.bô-Names, kinship, animals
(including bodyparts, tools,
instruments, animals, trees, plants)
(but also miscellaneous)
(including a number of collective nouns)
7.bo-ma-Abstract nouns
8.go-Infinitive forms of verbs

Some nouns may be found in several classes. For instance, many class 1 nouns are also found in class 1a, class 3, class 4, and class 5. [17]

Related Research Articles

Northern Sotho language

Northern Sotho, or Sesotho sa Leboa as an endonym, is a Sotho-Tswana language spoken in the northeastern provinces of South Africa. It is sometimes referred to as Pedi or Sepedi, its main dialect, through synecdoche. However, there are strong objections to this political synecdoche by most other Northern Sotho dialect speakers, such as speakers of the Modjadji's Lobedu dialect.

Zulu language Language of the Zulu people

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Xhosa language Language of the Xhosa people

Xhosa also isiXhosa as an endonym, is a Nguni Bantu language and one of the official languages of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Xhosa is spoken as a first language by approximately 8.2 million people and by another 11 million as a second language in South Africa, mostly in Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng and Northern Cape. It has perhaps the heaviest functional load of click consonants in a Bantu language, with one count finding that 10% of basic vocabulary items contained a click.

Tswana people

The Tswana are a Bantu-speaking ethnic group who are native to Southern Africa. The Tswana language is a principal member of the Sotho-Tswana language group. Ethnic Tswana made up approximately 85% of the population of Botswana in 2011.

Sotho or Sesotho is a Southern Bantu language of the Sotho-Tswana (S.30) group, spoken primarily by the Basotho in Lesotho, where it is the national and official language; South Africa, where it is one of the 11 official languages; and in Zimbabwe where it is one of 16 official languages.

Taa language Khoisan language

Taa, also known as ǃXóõ is a Tuu language notable for its large number of phonemes, perhaps the largest in the world. It is also notable for having perhaps the heaviest functional load of click consonants, with one count finding that 82% of basic vocabulary items started with a click. Most speakers live in Botswana, but a few hundred live in Namibia. The people call themselves ǃXoon or ʼNǀohan, depending on the dialect they speak. The Tuu languages are one of the three traditional language families that make up the Khoisan languages.

Swazi language

The Swati or siSwati language is a Bantu language of the Nguni group spoken in Eswatini and South Africa by the Swati people. The number of speakers is estimated to be in the region of 2.4 million. The language is taught in Eswatini and some South African schools in Mpumalanga, particularly former KaNgwane areas. Siswati is an official language of Eswatini, and is also one of the eleven official languages of South Africa.

The Nguni languages are a group of Bantu languages spoken in southern Africa by the Nguni peoples. Nguni languages include Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swati, Hlubi, Phuthi, Bhaca, Lala, Nhlangwini, Southern Transvaal Ndebele, and Sumayela Ndebele. The appellation "Nguni" derives from the Nguni cattle type. Ngoni is an older, or a shifted, variant.

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The Khoekhoe language, also known by the ethnic terms Nama (Namagowab), Damara (ǂNūkhoegowab), or Nama/Damara and formerly as Hottentot, is the most widespread of the non-Bantu languages of Southern Africa that make heavy use of click consonants and therefore were formerly classified as Khoisan, a grouping now recognized as obsolete. It belongs to the Khoe language family, and is spoken in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa primarily by three ethnic groups, Namakhoen, ǂNūkhoen, and Haiǁomkhoen.

Lozi language

Lozi, also known as siLozi and Rozi, is a Bantu language of the Niger–Congo language family within the Sotho–Tswana branch of Zone S (S.30), that is spoken by the Lozi people, primarily in southwestern Zambia and in surrounding countries. This language is most closely related to Northern Sotho, Tswana (Setswana), Kgalagari (SheKgalagari) and Sotho. Lozi, sometimes written as Rotse, and its dialects are spoken and understood by approximately six percent of the population of Zambia. Silozi is the endonym as defined by the United Nations. Lozi is the exonym.

ǂʼAmkoe, formerly called by the dialectal name ǂHoan, is a severely endangered Kxʼa language of Botswana. West ǂʼAmkoe, Taa, and Gǀui form the core of the Kalahari Basin sprachbund, and share a number of characteristic features, including some of the largest consonant inventories in the world. ǂʼAmkoe was shown to be related to the Juu languages by Honken and Heine (2010), which have since been classified together in the Kxʼa language family.

Juǀʼhoan language

Juǀʼhoan, also known as Southern or Southeastern ǃKung or ǃXun, is the southern variety of the ǃKung dialect continuum, spoken in northeastern Namibia and the Northwest District of Botswana by San Bushmen who largely identify themselves as Juǀʼhoansi. Several regional dialects are distinguished: Epukiro, Tsumǃkwe, Rundu, Omatako and ǂKxʼauǁʼein, with Tsumǃkwe being the best described and often taken as representative.

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Khwe is a dialect continuum of the Khoe family of Namibia, Angola, Botswana, South Africa, and parts of Zambia, with some 8,000 speakers.

Sandawe language

Sandawe is a language spoken by about 60,000 Sandawe people in the Dodoma Region of Tanzania. Sandawe's use of click consonants, a rare feature shared with only two other language of East Africa – Hadza and Dahalo, had been the basis of its classification as a member of the defunct Khoisan family of Southern Africa since Albert Drexel in the 1920s. Recent investigations however suggest that Sandawe may be related to the Khoe family regardless of the validity of Khoisan as a whole. A discussion of Sandawe's linguistic classification can be found in Sands (1998).

Phuthi (Síphùthì) is a Nguni Bantu language spoken in southern Lesotho and areas in South Africa adjacent to the same border. The closest substantial living relative of Phuthi is Swati, spoken in Swaziland and the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. Although there is no contemporary sociocultural or political contact, Phuthi is linguistically part of a historic dialect continuum with Swati. Phuthi is heavily influenced by the surrounding Sesotho and Xhosa languages, but retains a distinct core of lexicon and grammar not found in either Xhosa or Sesotho, and found only partly in Swati to the north.

Sotho-Tswana peoples Meta-ethnicity of southern Africa

The Sotho-Tswana peoples are a meta-ethnicity of southern Africa and live predominantly in Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho. The group mainly consists of four clasters; Southern Sotho (Sotho), Northern Sotho and Western Sotho. The last group is sometimes referred to as the Eastern Sotho and consists of the Pulana, the Pai and others.

The phonology of Sesotho and those of the other Sotho–Tswana languages are radically different from those of "older" or more "stereotypical" Bantu languages. Modern Sesotho in particular has very mixed origins inheriting many words and idioms from non-Sotho–Tswana languages.

This article presents a brief overview of the grammar of the Sesotho and provides links to more detailed articles.

The orthography of the Sotho language is fairly recent and is based on the Latin script, but, like most languages written using the Latin alphabet, it does not use all the letters; as well, several digraphs and trigraphs are used to represent single sounds.

Ditema tsa Dinoko writing system for some Southern Bantu languages

Ditema tsa Dinoko, also known by its IsiZulu name, Isibheqe Sohlamvu, and various other related names in different languages, is a constructed writing system for the siNtu or Southern Bantu languages, developed in the 2010s from antecedent ideographic traditions of the Southern African region. Its visual appearance is inspired by these, including the traditional litema arts style.



  1. 1 2 3 Tswana at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Webb, Vic. 2002. "Language in South Africa: the role of language in national transformation, reconstruction and development." Impact: Studies in language and society, 14:78
  3. Makalela, Leketi (28 July 2009). "Harmonizing South African Sotho Language Varieties: Lessons From Reading Proficiency Assessment". International Multilingual Research Journal. 3 (2): 120–133. doi:10.1080/19313150903073489. ISSN   1931-3152. S2CID   143275863.
  4. 1 2 Janson & Tsonope 1991 , pp. 36–37
  5. Janson & Tsonope 1991 , pp. 38–39
  6. University of Botswana 2001 , p. 16
  7. University of Botswana 2001 , p. 19
  8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311718411_The_design_of_Setswana_Scrabble.Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. University of Botswana 2001 , p. 10
  10. University of Botswana 2001 , p. 3
  11. University of Botswana 2001 , pp. 11–12
  12. University of Botswana 2001 , pp. 14–15
  13. University of Botswana 2001 , p. 32
  14. University of Botswana 2001 , pp. 31–32
  15. University of Botswana 2001 , p. 34
  16. Cole 1955 , pp. 68–69
  17. Cole 1955 , p. 70