Northern Sotho language

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Northern Sotho
Sesotho sa Leboa
Native toSouth Africa
RegionGauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Native speakers
4.7 million (2011 census)[1]
9.1 million L2 speakers (2002)[2]
  • Pedi
  • Lobedu (Kgaga)
  • Gananwa (Tlokwa)
  • Kopa (Ndebele-Sotho)
  • Birwa[3]
  • Tswapong[3]
  • ? Phalaborwa
  • ? Kutswe (East Sotho)
  • ? Pai (East Sotho)
  • ? Pulana (East Sotho)
Latin (Sotho alphabet)
Sotho Braille
Signed Pedi
Official status
Official language in
 South Africa
Regulated byPan South African Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-2nso
ISO 639-3Variously:
nso – Pedi etc.
brl – Birwa
two – Tswapong
Glottolognort3233  North Sotho + South Ndebele[4]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
Geographical distribution of Northern Sesotho in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks a form of Northern Sesotho at home.
Geographical distribution of Northern Sotho in South Africa: density of Northern Sotho 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

Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa), also known by the name of its standardised dialect version Sepedi (or Pedi) is a Bantu language spoken primarily in South Africa, where it is one of the 11 official languages. According to the 2011 census it was the first language of 4,618,576 people in South Africa, principally in the provinces of Limpopo, Gauteng and Mpumalanga.[5]


Northern Sotho is one of the Sotho languages of the Bantu family.

Although Northern Sotho shares the name Sotho with Southern Sotho, the two groups have less in common with each other than they have with Setswana.[citation needed]

Northern Sotho is also closely related to Setswana, sheKgalagari and siLozi. It is a standardised dialect, amalgamating several distinct varieties or dialects.

Until recently, Lobedu (also Khilovedu or Khelobedu) used to exist only in an unwritten form, and the standard Northern Sotho language and orthography was usually used for teaching and writing by this language community. As of 2018, a Khilovedu dictionary is being compiled in addition to proper Khilovedu orthography which is also in the process of being developed.

The monarch associated with this language community is Queen Modjadji (also known as the Rain Queen). Lobedu is spoken by a majority of people in the Greater Tzaneen, Greater Letaba, and BaPhalaborwa municipalities, and a minority in Greater Giyani municipality, as well as in the Limpopo Province and Tembisa township in Gauteng. Its speakers are known as the Balobedu.

Sepulana (also sePulane) exists in unwritten form and forms part of the standard Northern Sotho. Sepulana is spoken in Bushbuckridge area by the MaPulana people.

Northen Sotho is also spoken by the Mohlala people.

Confusion of nomenclature with Sepedi[edit]

Northern Sotho is often equated with the dialect it is primarily based on,[citation needed] Sepedi, and continued to be known as Pedi or Sepedi for some years after the new South African constitution appeared. However, the Pan South African Language Board and the Northern Sotho National Lexicography Unit now specifically endorse the names Northern Sotho or Sesotho sa Leboa.[citation needed]

The original confusion arose from the fact that the (now official) Northern Sotho written language was based largely on the Sepedi dialect (from which missionaries first developed the orthography[citation needed]), but has subsequently provided a common writing system for 20 or more varieties of the Sotho-Tswana languages spoken in the former Transvaal. The name Sepedi thus refers specifically to the dialect of the Pedi people,[citation needed] while Northern Sotho refers to the official language of that name and to all the speech varieties it has been taken to cover.

The English version of the Constitution of South Africa refers to the language as "Sepedi".[6] Its official translation into the language refers to it as "Sesotho sa Leboa" in the article about languages, but as "Sepedi" on the front page.[7]

Other varieties of Northern Sotho[edit]

Apart from the Sepedi dialect itself, other languages or dialects covered by the term "Northern Sotho" appear to be a diverse grouping of communal speech-forms within the Sotho-Tswana group. They are apparently united by the fact that they are classifiable neither as Southern Sotho nor as Tswana.[8]

Very little published information is available on these other dialects of Northern Sotho, but these have been reported:

  • kheLobedu (khiLobedu or seLobedu)
  • seTlokwa
  • seBirwa
  • sePulana
  • seKhutswe
  • seTswapo
  • SePai (transitional between Sotho-Tswana and Zulu/Swati)
  • BaMohlala
  • Sebididi (Sotho/Tswana) spoken in Setateng
  • Phahladira
  • Ga-Monyeki
  • Abbotspoort
  • Banareng
  • Thabo Mbeki villages and surrounding farms north-east of the coal mining town Lephalale (formerly Ellisras)

The morphological and possible lexical variation among these dialects has led to the above assertion that 'Northern Sotho' is no more than a holding category for otherwise unclassified Sotho-Tswana varieties spoken in north-eastern South Africa. Maho (2002) leaves SePhalaborwa and the "East Sotho" varieties of SeKutswe, SePai, and SePulana unclassified within Sotho–Tswana. Their precise classification would appear to be a matter for further research.

Writing system[edit]

Northern Sotho is written in the Latin alphabet. The letter š is used to represent the sound [ʃ] ("sh" is used in the trigraph "tsh" to represent an aspirated ts sound). The circumflex accent can be added to the letters e and o to distinguish their different sounds, but it is mostly used in language reference books. Some word prefixes, especially in verbs, are written separately from the stem.[9]



Northern Sotho vowels
Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a


Northern Sotho consonants
Labial Alveolar Post-
Velar Glottal
plain prepalatal alveolar plain lateral
Stop ejective pʃʼ psʼ tlʼ
aspirated pʃʰ psʰ tlʰ
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Affricate ejective tsʼ tʃʼ
aspirated tsʰ tʃʰ kxʰ
Fricative voiceless f fs s ɬ ʃ h~ɦ
voiced β βʒ ʒ ɣ
Rhotic r ɺ
Approximant w l j

Within nasal consonant compounds, the first nasal consonant sound is recognized as syllabic. Words such as nthuša "help me", are pronounced as [n̩tʰuʃa]. /n/ can also be pronounced as /ŋ/ following a velar consonant.[10]

Urban varieties of Northern Sotho, such as Pretoria Sotho (actually a derivative of Tswana), have acquired clicks in an ongoing process of such sounds spreading from Nguni languages.[11]


Some examples of Northern Sotho words and phrases:

English Northern Sotho
Welcome Kamogelo (noun) / Amogela (verb)
Good day / Hello Dumela (singular) / Dumelang (plural) / Thobela and Re a lotšha (to elders)
How are you? O kae? (singular) Le kae? (plural, also used for elders)
I am fine Ke gona.
I am fine too, thank you Le nna ke gona, ke a leboga.
Thank you Ke a leboga (I thank you) / Re a leboga (we thank you)
Good luck Mahlatse
Have a safe journey O be le leeto le le bolokegilego
Good bye! Šala gabotse (singular)/ Šalang gabotse (plural, also used for elders)(keep well) / Sepela gabotse(singular)/Sepelang gabotse (plural, also used for elders)(go well)
I am looking for a job Ke nyaka mošomô
No smoking Ga go kgogwe (/folwe)
No entrance Ga go tsenwe
Beware of the steps! Hlokomela disetepese!
Beware! Hlokomela!
Congratulations on your birthday Mahlatse letšatšing la gago la matswalo
Seasons greetings Ditumedišo tša Sehla sa Maikhutšo
Merry Christmas Mahlogonolo a Keresemose
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Mahlogonolo a Keresemose le ngwaga wo moswa wo monate
Expression Gontsha sa mafahleng
yes ee/eya
no aowa
please hle
thank you ke a leboga
help thušang/thušo
danger kotsi
emergency tšhoganetšo
excuse me ntshwarele
I am sorry Ke maswabi
I love you Ke a go rata
Questions / sentences Dipotšišo / mafoko
Do you accept (money/credit cards/traveler's cheques)? O amogela (singular) / Le

amogela ( tshelete/.../...)?

How much is this? Ke bokae e?
I want ... Ke nyaka...
What are you doing? O dira eng?
What is the time? Ke nako mang?
Where are you going? O ya kae?
Numbers Dinomoro
1 one -tee
2 two – pedi
3 three – tharo
4 four – nne
5 five – hlano
6 six – tshela
7 seven – šupa
8 eight – seswai
9 nine – senyane
10 ten – lesome
11 eleven – lesometee
12 twelve – lesomepedi
13 thirteen – lesometharo
14 fourteen – lesomenne
15 fifteen – lesomehlano
20 twenty – masomepedi
21 twenty one – masomepedi-tee
22 twenty two – masomepedi-pedi
50 fifty – masomehlano
100 hundred – lekgolo
1000 thousand – sekete
Days of the week Matšatši a beke
Sunday Lamorena
Monday Mošupologo
Tuesday Labobedi
Wednesday Laboraro
Thursday Labone
Friday Labohlano
Saturday Mokibelo
Months of the year Dikgwedi tša ngwaga
January Pherekgong
February Dibokwane
March Tlhakola
April Moranang
May Mopitlo
June Phupu
July Mosegemanye
August Phato
September Lewedi
October Diphalane
November Dibatsela
December Manthole
Computers and Internet terms Didirishwa tsa khomphutha le Inthanete
computer sebaledi / khomphutara
e-mail imeile
e-mail address aterese ya imeile
Internet Inthanete
Internet café khefi ya Inthanete
website weposaete
website address aterese ya weposaete


  1. ^ Pedi etc. at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Birwa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Tswapong 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. ^ a b c Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Northern Sotho". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. ^ Census 2011: Census in brief (PDF). Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2012. p. 23. ISBN 9780621413885. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 May 2015.
  6. ^ "Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 - Chapter 1: Founding Provisions | South African Government". Retrieved 24 July 2018.
  7. ^ MOLAOTHEO wa Repabliki ya Afrika Borwa wa, 1996. Department of Justice and Correctional Services. 2014. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-621-39063-6.
  8. ^ See Doke, Clement M. (1954). The Southern Bantu Languages. Handbook of African Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  9. ^ Pukuntšu ya polelopedi ya sekolo: Sesotho sa Leboa le Seisimane: e gatišitšwe ke Oxford = Oxford bilingual school dictionary: Northern Sotho and English. De Schryver, Gilles-Maurice. Cape Town: Oxford University Press Southern Africa. 2007. pp. S24–S26. ISBN 9780195765557. OCLC 259741811.CS1 maint: others (link)
  10. ^ Louwrens, Kosch, Kotzé, Louis J., Ingeborg M., Albert E. (1995). Northern Sotho. München: Lincom. pp. 4–11.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Languages of South Africa

External links[edit]