General Introduction

Sesotho, or Southern Sotho, is part of the Sotho language subgroup within the South - Eastern group of the Ntu (Bantu) language family. Other languages in the Sotho subgroup include Setswana (also known as Tswana or Western Sotho) and Sesotho sa Leboa (also known as Northern Sotho or by the dialect name Sepedi).

The language is spoken in the Kingdom of Lesotho as well as throughout the Republic of South Africa. Yet in South Africa the language is concentrated in the Free State province, the northern part of the Eastern Cape province and the south of the Gauteng province. It is also spoken in the vicinity of Pretoria and Brits. Very small language communities also exist in Namibia and Zambia.


Language varieties of this language include Sekwena, Sephuthi, Setlokwa and Setaung in the central region; Sekgolokwe in the north eastern region as well as Serotse (Selozi). (Also see Language Variety in Sesotho)

Traditionally it was thought the Sesotho spoken in Qwaqwa (former Basotho homeland in South Africa) and Lesotho was the purest form of the language. Yet no language can exist in total isolation and even there influence from other languages as well as language change has taken place. It has therefore happened that loan words and influences have been taken from neighbouring Nguni languages such as isiZulu and isiXhosa as well as European languages such as English and Afrikaans (a Germanic language that developed in Southern Africa from seventeenth century Dutch).


Sesotho is used by 3 555 186 speakers as a home language in South Africa (2001 census) which is 7.9% of the whole population. According to the 1996 census this number was 3 104 197.

The division of Sesotho speakers per province in South Africa (according to the 2001 census) is as follows:

Province Number
of speakers
Eastern Cape 152 340 2,4%
Free State 1 742 939  64,4%
Gauteng 1 159 589  13,1%
KwaZulu-Natal 66 925  0,7%
Limpopo 69 370 1,3%
Mpumalanga 114 169 3,7%
Northern Cape 9 101 1,1%
Northwest 209 315 5,7%
Western Cape 31 438 0,7%


The language was first reduced to writing by, Eugene Casalis, a French missionary of the Paris Evangelical Mission who arrived at Thaba Bosiu (in Lesotho) in 1833. Also notable was the work done by Arbousset. Casalis also compiled the first Sotho grammar book, Etudes sur la Langue Sechuana, in 1841.

Yet the first list of Sesotho words was compiled in written form by Rev. A. Mabille. Mabille married the daughter of Eugene Casalis - she initially taught Sesotho to Mabille before his arrival in Southern Africa from Europe. Rev. Mabille was also responsbile for establishing the printing press at Morija in Lesotho - it still exists today.

The Kwena dialect used by Moshoeshoe, regarded as the father of the Basotho people, was used in the first translation of the Bible by missionaries and became the standard for written Sesotho.

One of the main differences in the way of writing between Sesotho and other languages from the Ntu group in South Africa is the fact that Sesotho is written disjunctively and not conjunctively. Hence one would say "ngiyabonga" to say thank you in isiZulu and "ke a leboha" in Sesotho ("kea leboha" in Lesotho Sesotho). In the middle of the twentieth century linguists such as Doke and Ziervogel advocated the use of the conjunctive method in contrast to the disjunctive method of writing established by the missionaries. In addition E.B. van Wyk proposed a semi-conjunctive approach. In the end the more traditional disjunctive method of writing was accepted. Some still regard that as a Ntu language Sesotho should adhere to the rules used by similar languages. But language being a dynamic entity it is always shaped by the speakers and it seems that linguists nor language politics will alter the independent nature of the Sesotho language.

Sotho Languages

Main concentration of the Sotho languages in Southern Africa.

Sesotho in South Africa and Lesotho

Concentration of Sesotho in
Southern Africa.

Distribution of Sesotho speakers

Distribution of Sesotho speakers
(Socio-economic atlas for South Africa,
Human Sciences Research Council)

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J. Olivier (2016)