Harmonised or Unified Sotho

The Sotho subgroup of the Ntu (Bantu) language family consists of: Sesotho (Southern Sotho), Setswana and Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho). Due mainly to ortographisation and reduction to writing by various missionaries from different church and religious groups different characters were used to represent the same sounds in what is supposed to be the same language or at least closely related language entities. For example French missionaries worked on Sesotho, British missionaries on Setswana and German missionaries on Sesotho sa Leboa.

The idea of a unified Sotho language was mentioned by academics such as A.N. Tucker, G.P. Lestrade, C.M. Doke and C. Meinhof.

In 1945 J.M. Nhlapo suggested a unification of the Sotho languages with a new unified orthography. Some of the suggestions made during this time were included in the (separate) standardisation of the different Sotho languages. Yet the separate development of the various Sotho languages was promoted during the Apartheid rule in South Africa. In promoting and developing the separate languages the idea of separate "ethnic groups" was enforced and any unifying force for so-called blacks eliminated or at least reduced. 

Recently academics such as Neville Alexander and C.T. Msimang again raised the issue of the harmonisation of African languages.


Here are some of Nhlapo's suggestions in comparison with examples in Sesotho (South African and Lesotho versions), Setswana and Sesotho sa Leboa.


South Africa

Setswana Sesotho sa Leboa
(Northern Sotho)
Unified Sotho Translation
ema ema ema ema ema stand
oma oma oma oma oma dry
tsela tsela tsela tsela tsila road
roma roma roma roma ruma send
tsamaea tsamaya tsamaya tsamaya tsamaya walk
khomo kgomo kgomo kgomo kgomu cow
setlhare setlhare setlhare sethlare setlhare tree
chelete tjhelete t¹helete t¹helete tshelete  money

Example from Nhlapo (1945:15) of a text in unified Sesotho:

Bathu ba bantshi ha ba itlwayetsa hu sebetsa thata ka hunne ba nahana huri tiro ki silo se ts'hwanetsing hu etswa ki mathaka a sa rutwang. (Many people are not used to working hard because they imagine that work is something that should be done by uneducated fellows.)

In the following first two paragraphs of a translation of Androcles and the Lion in Nhlapo's Unified Sotho Orthography the g of Setswana and Sesotho sa Leboa are used instead of the h of Sesotho (for example: "gopola" instead of "hopola" for the word "remember")

I rile bugulugulu ga bo gu li mutlhanka ya bitswang Androcles, ya neng a etswi hampi thata ki mung wa gagwe, mmi a ikayelela gu ngwega. A tswa mo tlung ya mung wa gagwe a nanya, mmi a ipata mo murung o kgakala le mutsi wa Carthage oo ba agileng gu ona. Androcles a kgarakgats'heha murung nako e telle, mmi murago a fihla lihaheng le ligulu, ya ri ka hubani a fentswe ki mukgathala li tlala, a kena hu lona, a robala mmi a tluha a thulamela thata.

Androcles a tsuswa burokong ba gagwe ki hu puruma ha sibatana; mmi a mathela munyako wa lihaha, a kopana li tau e tuna i emi tsileng ya gagwe. A libella huri u tla gagautlhwa ki tau eu, mmi a ts'huha ha sibata sena si mu atamela ka bunolo si sa itshupi ha si li buhali.


Nhlapo's suggestion of a unified Sotho was met with a lot of criticism and even today it seems to be still a troublesome issue - yet the discussion continues.

NHLAPO, J.M. 1945. Nguni and Sotho. A practical plan for the unification of the South African Bantu languages. Cape Town : The African Bookman. 167p.

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J. Olivier (2009)