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Sesotho language

Sesotho (Southern Sotho) is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa. According to 2001 census data, there were 3,555,186 first language Sesotho speakers recorded in South Africa, approximately eight per cent of the population. Sesotho is also the main language spoken by the people of Lesotho.

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 Noun prefix system
3 Vowels and consonants
4 Tones
5 Numbers
6 Grammar example
7 External links
8 References


Sesotho is generally classified as a Bantu language, belonging to the Niger-Congo language family. It is most closely related to two other languages in the Sotho language group, Setswana and Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa).

The language has the following noteworthy properties:

Noun prefix system

Sesotho is a tonal language and, like all other Bantu Languages is distinguished by its prefix concordial system and the fact that all words either end in a vowel or in a nasal consonant (n, ng, ny, or m).

Also, like all other Bantu languages, it uses a set of "noun classes" and each noun in Sesotho belongs to one of the classes. The noun classes and their respective prefixes in Sesotho are as follows:

class prefix example(s) English meaning(s) notes human nouns
1a.-ntatefathermostly human nouns non-humans
5.le-letsatsi, lelemeday/sun, tonguehuman and non-human[N]-matsatsi, litemedays, flattery and non-human
9.[N]-ntho, thapelothing, prayerhuman and non-human[N]-lintho, lithapelothings, prayers, bobebread, uglinessabstract nouns belong here, therefore...
14(plur.).ma-mahobebreadsmost 14 words have no plural
15.hoho tsamaeato goinfinitives belong here
16.-fatshedownonly word in this class
17.ho-holimo, hole, hosaneup, far away, tomorrow, mosebehind, overseas

Each basic noun in Sesotho has an inherent prefix (even if that prefix is "the null prefix") - if you can remember a word off by heart, and you know the full list of prefixes, you can (perhaps 90% of the time) determine the class of that particular word. Knowing the class, first, allows to know what the plural of the word is (for singular words), eg:

"sefate" (tree) has prefix "se-", which is of class 7, therefore its plural must be "lifate"
In case you haven't noticed, up until class 10, the plural class for class n is class n+1 (where n is odd). Another example:
"lemati" (door) has prefix "le-", which is class 5, so its plural is "mamati"
Problems start occurring with words like "monyako" (door, again) - is it in class 3 or 1?
You will observe in the above table that the note next to group 1 says "mostly humans" and that group 3 says "mostly non-humans". Since doors aren't human, we can therefore conclude that "monyako" is probably in class 3, so its plural is in class 4, "menyako".

Motsoalle (friend), in class 1, has an irregular plural in class 4 - "metsoalle". Also, "morena" (king), has a plural in class 6. Many class 1 words have a tendency of misbehaving, but we know that they belong to class 1 because of their concords. Quite a substantial number of class 1 words have a their plural in class 6.


  1. [N] means that nasalisation will occur to the following consonant.
  2. Many of class 5's words come from the original Bantu "lu-" class, and its plural was "li-", which is why 6 has 2 forms. However, the "li[N]-" plural does not apply to all 5 words, and when it does the meaning might be changed slightly ("maleme" - tongues, "liteme" - flattery).For example, many Batswana still say "lorato" for Sesotho "lerato" (love), as this class still exists in the language. When in doubt, don't use the "li[N]-" form.

Vowels and consonants

Also, the following are lenghtened/"syllabalic" consonants: Notes:
  1. The orthography used above is a rational compromise between the current Lesotho and South African writng systems (the 2 countries use slightly different orthographies for Sesotho), most notably, SAS (South African Sesotho) uses w and y for the semi-vowels o and e and "di" and "du" for "li" and "lu".
  2. Contrary to what popular South African youth culture may lead some to belive, there are no z's, v's, or dl's (voiced lateral) in Sesotho.
  3. Many of the sounds used to speak English are quite different from Sesotho; the above pronunciation guide is ONLY APPROXIMATE and it is based on South African English pronunciations.
  4. Each of the above is a SINGLE SOUND, see below under Doubled Articulants for the only Sesotho consonants pronounced as 2 sounds.
  5. The r really IS pronounced as in Parisian French. This is largely attributed to the influence of French missionaries at Morija in Lesotho.
  6. There are 9 vowels in Sesotho, 2 more than most other Bantu languages.
  7. k'h is a very rare consonant in Sesotho occurring only in old loan words from isiZulu and a few ideophones.
  8. tlh occurs only as a nasally permutated form of hl, or as an alternative to it.
  9. Doubled l occurs only due to a vowel being ellided between 2 vowels, eg:
fire: "molelo" - Setswana, "umlilo" - isiZulu, "mollo" - Sesotho
cry: "lela" - Setswana, "lla" - Sesotho.

Nasalisation/Nasal permutation

Nasalisation is a phonetic phenomenon which occurs under certain circumstances (most notably with personal and reflexive verbs) where the beginning consonant of a word is transformed into another under the influence of a (usually invisible) nasal consonant or a high palatal (the vowel i - when forming reflexive verbs). So:

The influencing nasal consonant only appears on monosyllabalic words and changes according to what the new consonant is.
Example of the derivation of a popular South African name:
  1. "fa" is a verb meaning "give"
  2. to convert it to a noun meaning "the act of giving" or "the thing given" one regularly converts the terminal -a of the verb to an -o (except for "tjho", all complete, non-auxiliary verbs in Sesotho end in an a)
  3. since the verb starts with an f - and converting a verb to a noun requires nasal permutation - we convert the f into ph
  4. but now we have a monosyllabalic word, thus we add the nasal consonant in the same approximate position as the new consonant - namely m - and we add it to the front of our word.
"Mpho" is what we get, a not all too uncommon Sesotho first name meaning "Gift".
Each of the above pairs are pronounced in the same approximate position (in the mouth), with 2 exceptions: By the nasal "at the same approximate position as" I mean that pronounced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth at more or less the same place as when pronouncing the consonant.

Nasal homogeneity

Nasals have a very special place in the Sotho group of languages. Nasal homogeneity consists of 2 points:

  1. When a consonant is preceded by a (visible or invisible) nasal it will undergo nasal permutation, if it supports it.
  2. When a nasal is immediately followed by another consonant with no vowel betwixt them, the nasal will change to a nasal in the same approximate position as the following consonant, after the consonant has undergone nasal permutation. If the consonant is already a nasal then the previous nasal will simply change to the same.
An illustrative example is the following:
The general bantu absolute pronouns for "I" and "you" are "mi" and "we", respectively. Bantu languages has a general aversion towards monosyllabalic words and use different ways of making absolute pronouns disyllabalic:
Sesotho and isiXhosa also use the suffix "-na", but the i in "mina" has been ellided to "mna". However, in Sesotho, this construction contradicts the second principle of nasal homogeneity, so the m changes to the nasal in the same approximate position as n, giving the Sotho word " 'na" for "I".

Doubled articulants

In addition to the above, the following "double consonants" also appear either:

Each of these has a more preferred (and easier to pronounce) alternatives:

psh occurs only as the "labialised" form of f, in the passives of verbs that end in "-fa", ie. it accurs only as the syllable "-fshoa". (eg. "ho bofa" - to tie, "ho bofshoa/boshoa" - to be tied)


Like most other Bantu languages, Sesotho is a tonal language, employing 2 tones, high [ - ] and low [ _ ], which can at least one of the following purposes:

Characteristic tone

Each complete Sesotho word has an inherent tone for its syllables, which, although not essential to forming correct speech, will betray a foreign accent:

motho [ _ _ ] human being
ntja [ _ - ] dog
mosotho [ _ - _ ] a Sesotho speaking person
lerata [ _ _ - ] noise

Distinguishing/semantic tone

Often, a few words may be composed of the exact same syllables/phonemes, yet mean different things depending on what tonal pattern is used:

ho aka [ _ - - ] to kiss
ho aka [ _ _ _ ] to lie to

joang [ _ - ] grass
joang [ - _ ] how?

ho tena [ - - ] to wear
ho tena [ _ _ ] to annoy/disgust

Grammatical tone

It regularly occurs that 2 otherwise similar sounding phrases may have 2 very different meanings mainly due to a difference in tone of one or more words or concords.

Ke ngoana oa hao [_ - _ _ - _ ] I am your child
Ke ngoana oa hao [- - _ _ - _ ] He/she/it is your child

O mobe [_ _ - ] You are ugly
O mobe [- _ - ] He/she is ugly

Ke batlana le bona [ _ _ - _ - _ _ ] I am looking for them (people)
Ke batlana le bona [ - _ - _ _ _ _ ] As I was looking for them (people)

Note that when grammatical tone is used the tone of the significant word influences the reletive pitch of the rest of the phrase, although the tones of other words remain intact.

The tone of a syllable is carried by the vowel, or the nasal, if the nasal is syllabalic. Syllabalic l (and, in Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana, syllabalic r) never carry any kind of independent tone, their "tone" being the same as one of the syllables around it. A classic example of a nasal carrying a nasal:

To form a localative from a noun (a localative being a place word, renderings meanins such as "in the house"), one of the possible procedures involves simply suffixing an ng (with a low tone). To form the localative meaning "on the grass" you suffix ng to the word joang [ _ - ], giving joanng [ _ - _ ] (pronounced "djwa-ng-ng"), with the 2 last nasal syllables have contrasting tones.

Names, being nouns, frequently have a tonal pattern distinct from the noun:
The Sesotho word for mother/missus/madam is 'me [ _ - ], but a child would call their own mother 'me [ - _ ], using it as a first nase. Also, Ntate [ _ - _ ] means father/mister/sir, while Ntate [_ - - ] might be used by a small child to say "dad".

Contrary to what students of
Kiswahili may have been led to believe, Bantu languages are not necessarily on a trend from being tonal to being non-tonal. Kiswahili, being almost a creole of Al-Arabiiyat, does not count as a reliable preview of the future of most Bantu languages. The learned speakers of most Bantu languages (who, instead of studying the languages, speak them) would agree that they do not see their languages becoming toneless.


Bantu languages use a quinary counting system with 6 basic numbers, the other 4 being miscellaneous.
Here's a comparison between 3 Bantu languages:
Number Sesotho Setswana isiZulu Sesotho sa Leboa


Grammar example

Like for all other Bantu languages, linguists may say that the language is "centered around the noun", this is due to the fact that a large number of the words in a Sesotho sentence may change as soon as one of the nouns changes. This is due to a concept named "noun concordance".

For example:

        Mo ja monna ha a mo qete  - A man-eater never finishes him (old Sesotho saying)
        Ba ja monna ha ba mo qete - Man-eaters never finish him.
        Mo ja banna ha a ba qete  - A men-eater never finishes them.
        Ba ja banna ha ba ba qete - Men-eaters never finish them.
        ^_________^ ^  ^  ^  ^        
             |      |  |  |  |
             |      |  |  | verb 
             |      |  | object concord
             |      | subject concord
             |   makes vb. -ve
Compound noun (class prefix for person/s, verb - eat, subject)

There are 7 different concordance types for each class (subject, object, adjectival, relative, enumerative, possessive, pronomial).
The words/prefixes used to indicate these concords might vary slightly according to sentence tense/mood. The "auxiliary concord" used on is only a past tense form of the subject concord which has changed due to an old "-a-" between the concord and the verb. Since, for example, all of class 2's concords are "ba", it is not too difficult to make alliterative sentences like:
Bana bao ba batle ba kopane le batsoali ba bona 'me batsoali ba bona ba ba shapa. - Meaning: (nonsensical)
Every ba/ba- in the above sentence is due to the prefix of "bana" (children) and "batsoali" (parents).

Changing "batsoali" to "metsoalle" (friends) renders:

Bana bao ba batle ba kopane le MEtsoalle EA bona 'me MEtsoalle EA bona EA ba shapa.

Changing bana to "lintho", we get:

LIntho TSEo TSE Ntle LI kopane le metsoalle ea TSona 'me metsoalle ea TSona ea LI shapa.

External links


A bit of the technical material is from Textbook of Southern Sotho Grammar by C. M. Doke and S. M. Mofokeng published by Longman Southern Africa, 3rd impression (1974) .