Tswana language

The Tswana language (Tswana: Setswana) is a Bantu language spoken in Southern Africa by about five million speakers.[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 and Southern Sotho languages, as well as the Kgalagadi language and the Lozi language.

Native toBotswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia
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
 South Africa
Language codes
ISO 639-1tn
ISO 639-2tsn
ISO 639-3tsn
The Tswana Language

Tswana is an official language and lingua franca of Botswana. The majority of Tswana-speakers are found in the north of South Africa, where four million people speak the language and an urbanised variety which is part slang and not the formal Setswana, known as Pretoria Tswana, is the principal language of that city. The three South African provinces with the most speakers are Gauteng (circa 11%) and 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 to name a few] the written language remains the same. Although Tswana is spoken mostly in South Africa and Botswana, a small number of speakers are also found in Zimbabwe and Namibia; respectively, an unknown number of people and about 10,000 people speak the language there.[1]


The first European to describe the Tswana language was the German traveller H. 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 language, and the name he used for the language "Beetjuana" may also have covered the Northern and Southern Sotho languages.

The first major work on the Tswana language 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.[4]

The first grammar of the Tswana language 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 consonant inventory of Tswana can be seen below.[8]

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/.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]


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 is realised as [mʊ̀ˈsáːdì].[12]


Tswana has two tones, high and low, although the latter has a much wider distribution in words than the former. Tones are not marked orthographically which may lead to ambiguity.[13]

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 also get high tones, unless they are at the end of the word.[14]

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.[15]

Class Singular Plural Characteristics
1. mo- ba- Persons
1a. bô- Names, kinship, animals
2. mo- me-
(including bodyparts, tools,
instruments, animals, trees, plants)
3. le- ma-
4. se- di-
5. n-
(but also miscellaneous)
6. lo- Miscellaneous
(including a number of collective nouns)
7. bo- ma- Abstract nouns
8. go- Infinitive forms of verbs
9. fa-

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.[16]



  1. 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. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tswana". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. 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. University of Botswana 2001, p. 10
  9. University of Botswana 2001, p. 3
  10. University of Botswana 2001, pp. 11–12
  11. University of Botswana 2001, pp. 14–15
  12. University of Botswana 2001, p. 32
  13. University of Botswana 2001, pp. 31–32
  14. University of Botswana 2001, p. 34
  15. Cole 1955, pp. 68–69
  16. Cole 1955, p. 70


  • Cole, Desmond (1955), An Introduction to Tswana Grammar, Cape Town: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Janson, Tore; Tsonope, Joseph (1991), Birth of a National Language: The History of Setswana, ISBN 0-435-91620-3
  • University of Botswana (2001), The Sound System of Setswana, ISBN 99912-71-21-X
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.