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Tswana language

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Tswana language

Native to Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia
Native speakers
4,067,248 in South Africa (2011)
~2 million in Botswana  (2012)[1]
Latin (Tswana alphabet)
Tswana Braille
Signed Tswana (South Africa)
Official status
Official language in
 South Africa
Language codes
ISO 639-1 tn
ISO 639-2 tsn
ISO 639-3 tsn
Glottolog tswa1253[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUT-eg incl. varieties 99-AUT-ega to 99-AUT-egn
The Tswana Language
Person moTswana
People baTswana
Language seTswana
Country leTswana (also Botswana)
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.

Tswana or Setswana is a language spoken in Southern Africa by about 6.1 million people.[4] It is a Bantu language belonging to the Niger–Congo language family within the Sotho languages 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.

Tswana is an official language and lingua franca of Botswana, spoken by a little over 2 million of its inhabitants. The majority of Tswana speakers are found in South Africa, where a little over 4 million people speak the language, and where an urbanised variety known as Pretoria Sotho is the principal language of that city. Until 1994, South African Tswana people were notionally citizens of Bophuthatswana, one of the bantustans of the apartheid regime. Although Tswana language is significantly spoken in South Africa and Botswana, a small number of speakers are also found in Zimbabwe and Namibia, where respectively 29,400 and 12,300 people speak the language.[4]


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.[5]

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 are distinct from Tswana.[6]

In 1876 the South African intellectual and linguist Solomon Plaatje was born, and he became one of the first writers to extensively write in and about the Tswana language.[5]



The vowel inventory of Tswana can be seen below.[7]

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/.[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]

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 is realised as [mʊ̀ˈsáːdì].[13]


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.[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 also get 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]

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.[17]



  1. ^ Setswana at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tswana". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ a b Janson & Tsonope 1991, pp. 36–37
  6. ^ Janson & Tsonope 1991, pp. 38–39
  7. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 16
  8. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 19
  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


External links

  • Map of Tswana language from the LL-Map Project
  • Peace Corps Botswana: An Introduction to the Setswana Language
  • Setswana: Grammar Handbook. Peace Corps Language Handbook Series
  • "E-books for children with narration in Setswana". Unite for Literacy library. Retrieved 2014-06-21. 
  • "The languages of South Africa". Retrieved 2014-06-21. 
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