Sesotho language

From Academic Kids

Sesotho (Sesotho)
Spoken in: Lesotho and South Africa
Total speakers: about 5 million
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Niger-Congo

     Narrow Bantu

Official status
Official language of: Lesotho, South Africa
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1st
ISO 639-2sot
See also: LanguageList of languages

Sesotho is a language spoken in southern Africa.



Sesotho is generally classified as a Bantu language, belonging to the Niger-Congo language family. It is most closely related to two other languages in the Sotho language group, Setswana and Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa).

Geographic distribution

According to 2001 census data, there were 3,555,186 first language Sesotho speakers recorded in South Africa, approximately eight per cent of the population. Sesotho is also the main language spoken by the people of Lesotho, where it is spoken by about 1,493,000 people, or 85 % of the population (1993).

Official status

Sesotho (Southern Sotho) is the one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, and one of the two official languages of Lesotho.



  • a - the o in "love"
  • e - either the a in "lad", the short i in "bit",the ai in "hair", or y when followed by a vowel
  • i - long i sound in "seat"
  • o - either u in "put", o in "lot",the aw in "saw", or w when followed by a vowel (semivowel)
  • u - long u


  • b - the usual voiced bilabial, but in Sesotho it is FULLY VOICED, while the English b is delayed voiced, like the nguni bh
  • ch - aspirated ch as in "chill"
  • d - see "l"
  • f - normal dentolabial unvoiced fricative
  • h - a slighty harder h than that in English
  • j - voiced prepalatal fricative, just like in French
  • hl - lateral fricative ("...the ll in 'Llanelly'..."?)
  • k - normal k BUT UNASPIRATED, like the k in "skill"
  • k'h - aspirated k in "kill"
  • kh - hard ch in "loch ness", aspirated!
  • l - VOICED l if before a,o,e but pronounced as a soft d before i and u
  • m - same old bilabial nasal
  • n - normal n
  • ng - normal ng (not 2 sounds as in "English", like last ng in "singing"), can be at beginning of words
  • ny - as second n in "el nino"
  • p - unaspirated p in "spit"
  • ph - aspirated p in "pull"
  • q - prepalatal click
  • qh - aspirated prepalatal click
  • nq - nasalised prepalatal click
  • r - Parisian r, slightly stronger than in English, not at tip of tongue
  • s - normal sibilant
  • sh - usuall sh sound
  • t - unaspirated t in "stalk"
  • th -aspirated t in "taunt"
  • ts - unaspirated plosive s, like in English "its"
  • tš - aspirated plosive s
  • tj - unaspirated prepalatal plosive
  • tjh - aspirated prepalatal plosive
  • tl - lateral plosive
  • tlh - lateral aspirated plosive

Also, the following are lenghtened/"syllabalic" consonants:

  • nn - written 'n at beginning of words
  • mm - written 'm at beginning of words
  • nng - long ng
  • nny - long ny
  • ll - only non-nasal that can be lengthened


  1. The orthography used above is a rational compromise between the current Lesotho and South African writng systems (the 2 countries use slightly different orthographies for Sesotho), most notably, SAS (South African Sesotho) uses w and y for the semi-vowels o and e and "di" and "du" for "li" and "lu".
  2. Contrary to what popular South African youth culture may lead some to believe, there are no z's, v's, or dl's (voiced lateral) in Sesotho.
  3. Many of the sounds used to speak English are quite different from Sesotho; the above pronunciation guide is ONLY APPROXIMATE and it is based on South African English pronunciations.
  4. Each of the above is a SINGLE SOUND, see below under Doubled Articulants for the only Sesotho consonants pronounced as 2 sounds.
  5. The r really IS pronounced as in Parisian French. This is largely attributed to the influence of French missionaries at Morija in Lesotho.
  6. There are 9 vowels in Sesotho, 2 more than most other Bantu languages.
  7. k'h is a very rare consonant in Sesotho occurring only in old loan words from isiZulu and a few ideophones.
  8. tlh occurs only as a nasally permutated form of hl, or as an alternative to it.
  9. Doubled l occurs only due to a vowel being ellided between 2 vowels, eg:
fire: "molelo" - Setswana, "umlilo" - isiZulu, "mollo" - Sesotho
cry: "lela" - Setswana, "ukulila" - isiXhosa, "u lila" - Tshivenda, "lla" - Sesotho.


The language has the following noteworthy properties:

  • It has nine distinct vowels, four of which form 2 groups of 2 vowels which sometimes behave as part of the same phoneme, and other times don't.
  • The spoken language comprises of 35 consonants, including 2 semi-vowels, 3 click consonants, and 4 non-homogenous doubled articulants.
  • All words either end in a vowel or the velar nasal ng.
  • All nouns, save one, begin with a consonant, the exception being "isao"-"next year".

Nasalisation/Nasal permutation

Nasalisation is a phonetic phenomenon which occurs under certain circumstances (most notably with personal and reflexive verbs) where the beginning consonant of a word is transformed into another under the influence of a (usually invisible) nasal consonant or a high palatal (the vowel i - when forming reflexive verbs). So:

  • l becomes t, nasal n
  • sh becomes tjh, nasal n
  • s becomes tš, nasal n
  • f becomes ph, nasal m
  • b becomes p, nasal m
  • r becomes th, nasal n
  • h becomes kh, nasal ng
  • j becomes tj, nasal ny
  • hl becomes tlh, nasal n, except for adjectives
  • vowels with no consonant and semi-vowels (glottal stops) become k+the (semi-)vowel
  • nasals become doubled, except for reflexive verbs

The influencing nasal consonant only appears on monosyllabalic words and changes according to what the new consonant is.
Example of the derivation of a popular South African name:

  1. "fa" is a verb meaning "give"
  2. to convert it to a noun meaning "the act of giving" or "the thing given" one regularly converts the terminal -a of the verb to an -o (except for "tjho", all complete, non-auxiliary verbs in Sesotho end in an a)
  3. since the verb starts with an f - and converting a verb to a noun requires nasal permutation - we convert the f into ph
  4. but now we have a monosyllabalic word, thus we add the nasal consonant in the same approximate position as the new consonant - namely m - and we add it to the front of our word.

"Mpho" is what we get, a not all too uncommon Sesotho first name meaning "Gift".
Each of the above pairs are pronounced in the same approximate position (in the mouth), with 2 exceptions:

  • since there is no other sound pronounced in the same place as the glottal stop (the sound before a consonant-less vowel), k is used because it's the closest (furthest back) consonant which was not already in use (like kh)
  • r used to be pronounced with the tip of the tongue, in the same position as th, and when this trilling r was gradually replaced by the Parisian variety, this phonetical rule stood as a grammatical principal.

By the nasal "at the same approximate position as" I mean that pronounced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth at more or less the same place as when pronouncing the consonant.

Nasal homogeneity

Nasals have a very special place in the Sotho group of languages. Nasal homogeneity consists of 2 points:

  1. When a consonant is preceded by a (visible or invisible) nasal it will undergo nasal permutation, if it supports it.
  2. When a nasal is immediately followed by another consonant with no vowel betwixt them, the nasal will change to a nasal in the same approximate position as the following consonant, after the consonant has undergone nasal permutation. If the consonant is already a nasal then the previous nasal will simply change to the same.

An illustrative example is the following:

The general bantu absolute pronouns for "I" and "you" are "mi" and "we", respectively. Bantu languages has a general aversion towards monosyllabalic words and use different ways of making absolute pronouns disyllabalic:
  • Kiswahili uses doubling - "mimi" and "wewe"
  • Shona uses a prefix - "imi" and "iwe"
  • isiZulu uses a suffix - "mina" and "wena"

Sesotho and isiXhosa also use the suffix "-na", but the i in "mina" has been ellided to "mna". However, in Sesotho, this construction contradicts the second principle of nasal homogeneity, so the m changes to the nasal in the same approximate position as n, giving the Sotho word " 'na" for "I".

Doubled articulants

In addition to the above, the following "double consonants" also appear either:

  • in old words and ideophones, or
  • as transformed forms of many of the above consonants (particularly at the end of passive verbs.)

Each of these has a more preferred (and easier to pronounce) alternatives:

  • pj - sounds like a p and a sh at the same time, alternative "tj"
  • psh - an aspirated pj (yes, an aspirated "sh" sound), alternative "tjh"
  • bj - simultaneous b and j, alternative "j"
  • fsh - aspirated f and sh, alternative "sh"

psh occurs only as the "labialised" form of f, in the passives of verbs that end in "-fa", ie. it accurs only as the syllable "-fshoa". (eg. "ho bofa" - to tie, "ho bofshoa/boshoa" - to be tied)


Like most other Bantu languages, Sesotho is a tonal language, employing 2 tones, high [ - ] and low [ _ ], which can at least one of the following purposes:

Characteristic tone

Each complete Sesotho word has an inherent tone for its syllables, which, although not essential to forming correct speech, will betray a foreign accent:

motho [ _ _ ] human being
ntja [ _ - ] dog
mosotho [ _ - _ ] a Sesotho speaking person
lerata [ _ _ - ] noise

Distinguishing/semantic tone

Often, a few words may be composed of the exact same syllables/phonemes, yet mean different things depending on what tonal pattern is used:

ho aka [ _ - - ] to kiss
ho aka [ _ _ _ ] to lie to

joang [ _ - ] grass
joang [ - _ ] how?

ho tena [ - - ] to wear
ho tena [ _ _ ] to annoy/disgust

Grammatical tone

It regularly occurs that 2 otherwise similar sounding phrases may have 2 very different meanings mainly due to a difference in tone of one or more words or concords.

Ke ngoana oa hao [_ - _ _ - _ ] I am your child
Ke ngoana oa hao [- - _ _ - _ ] He/she/it is your child

O mobe [_ _ - ] You are ugly
O mobe [- _ - ] He/she is ugly

Ke batlana le bona [ _ _ - _ - _ _ ] I am looking for them (people)
Ke batlana le bona [ - _ - _ _ _ _ ] As I was looking for them (people)

Note that when grammatical tone is used the tone of the significant word influences the relative pitch of the rest of the phrase, although the tones of other words remain intact.

The tone of a syllable is carried by the vowel, or the nasal, if the nasal is syllabalic. Syllabalic l (and, in Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana, syllabalic r) never carry any kind of independent tone, their "tone" being the same as one of the syllables around it. A classic example of a nasal carrying a nasal:

To form a localative from a noun (a localative being a place word, renderings meanins such as "in the house"), one of the possible procedures involves simply suffixing an ng (with a low tone). To form the localative meaning "on the grass" you suffix ng to the word joang [ _ - ], giving joanng [ _ - _ ] (pronounced "djwa-ng-ng"), with the 2 last nasal syllables have contrasting tones.

Names, being nouns, frequently have a tonal pattern distinct from the noun:

The Sesotho word for mother/missus/madam is 'me [ _ - ], but a child would call their own mother 'me [ - _ ], using it as a first nase. Also, Ntate [ _ - _ ] means father/mister/sir, while Ntate [_ - - ] might be used by a small child to say "dad".


Noun prefix system

Sesotho is a tonal language and, like all other Bantu Languages is distinguished by its prefix concordial system and the fact that all words either end in a vowel or in a nasal consonant (n, ng, ny, or m).

Also, like all other Bantu languages, it uses a set of "noun classes" and each noun in Sesotho belongs to one of the classes. The noun classes and their respective prefixes in Sesotho are as follows:

class prefix example(s) English meaning(s) notes human nouns
1a.-ntatefathermostly human nouns non-humans
5.le-letsatsi, lelemeday/sun, tonguehuman and non-human[N]-matsatsi, litemedays, flattery and non-human
9.[N]-ntho, thapelothing, prayerhuman and non-human[N]-lintho, lithapelothings, prayers, bobebread, uglinessabstract nouns belong here, therefore...
14(plur.).ma-mahobebreadsmost class 14 words have no plural
15.hoho tsamaeato goinfinitives belong here
16.-fatshedownonly word in this class
17.ho-holimo, hole, hosaneup, far away, tomorrow, mosebehind, overseas

Noun classes 11 to 13 do not occur in Sesotho, but do occur in other Bantu languages, such as isiZulu.

Each basic noun in Sesotho has an inherent prefix (even if that prefix is "the null prefix") - if you can remember a word off by heart, and you know the full list of prefixes, you can (perhaps 90% of the time) determine the class of that particular word. Knowing the class, first, allows to know what the plural of the word is (for singular words), eg:

"sefate" (tree) has prefix "se-", which is of class 7, therefore its plural must be "lifate"

In case you haven't noticed, up until class 10, the plural class for class n is class n+1 (where n is odd). Another example:

"lemati" (door) has prefix "le-", which is class 5, so its plural is "mamati"

Problems start occurring with words like "monyako" (door, again) - is it in class 3 or 1?
You will observe in the above table that the note next to group 1 says "mostly humans" and that group 3 says "mostly non-humans". Since doors aren't human, we can therefore conclude that "monyako" is probably in class 3, so its plural is in class 4, "menyako".

Motsoalle (friend), in class 1, has an irregular plural in class 4 - "metsoalle". Also, "morena" (king), has a plural in class 6. Many class 1 words have a tendency of misbehaving, but we know that they belong to class 1 because of their concords. Quite a substantial number of class 1 words have a their plural in class 6.


  1. [N] means that nasalisation will occur to the following consonant.
  2. Many of class 5's words come from the original Bantu "lu-" class, and its plural was "li-", which is why 6 has 2 forms. However, the "li[N]-" plural does not apply to all 5 words, and when it does the meaning might be changed slightly ("maleme" - tongues, "liteme" - flattery).For example, many Batswana still say "lorato" for Sesotho "lerato" (love), as this class still exists in the language. When in doubt, don't use the "li[N]-" form.


Bantu languages use a quinary counting system with 6 basic numbers, the other 4 being miscellaneous.
Here's a comparison between some Bantu languages:

Number Sesotho Setswana isiZulu Sesotho sa Leboa


  • As you will notice, the 6 basic numbers are 1 to 5 and 10.
  • In most Bantu languages 1 to 5 are adjectives (in many they are enumeratives), and 10 is a noun. All the other numbers are nouns derived from verbs (eg. 7 is derived from "to point" in all 3 above languages).
  • The above are the noun (counting) forms, derived from the adjectivial forms (for 1 to 5), in particular, the Sesotho Language Group forms are nasally permuted.
  • In Sesotho, " 'ngoe" is a nasally permutated form of the adjective "-ng" used only for class 9 nouns. The use of the number 1 in Sesotho is different than in the other SLG languages, because the Sesotho "-ng" is an enumerative which behaves sometimes like an adjective and can therefore become a noun.
  • However, the Sesotho and Sesotho sa Leboa words for "one" do not follow the general Bantu norm. "Noši" (which might be related to the Kiswahili "mosi") is used in Sesotho sa Leboa for the adjective "one.

Grammar example

Like all other Bantu languages, linguists may say that the language is "centered around the noun", this is due to the fact that a large number of the words in a Sesotho sentence may change as soon as one of the nouns changes. This is due to a concept named "noun concordance".

For example:

        Mo ja monna ha a mo qete  - A man-eater never finishes him (old Sesotho saying)
        Ba ja monna ha ba mo qete - Man-eaters never finish him.
        Mo ja banna ha a ba qete  - A men-eater never finishes them.
        Ba ja banna ha ba ba qete - Men-eaters never finish them.
        ^_________^ ^  ^  ^  ^        
             |      |  |  |  |
             |      |  |  | verb 
             |      |  | object concord
             |      | subject concord
             |   makes vb. -ve
Compound noun (class prefix for person/s, verb - eat, subject)

There are 7 different concordance types for each class (subject, object, adjectival, relative, enumerative, possessive, pronominal).

The words/prefixes used to indicate these concords might vary slightly according to sentence tense/mood. The "auxiliary concord" used on ( is only a past tense form of the subject concord which has changed due to an old "-a-" between the concord and the verb (notice how "di"+"a" became "tsa" - this is by far the most common phonetic change in LSG, and the change form "ts" to "l" or "d" is the second most common).

Since, for example, all except one of class 2's concords are "ba" (the exception being "bo-" as in "bana bana bona" "these very same children"), it is not too difficult to make alliterative sentences like:

Bana bao ba batle ba kopane le batsoali ba bona 'me batsoali ba bona ba ba shapa. - Meaning: (nonsensical)

Every ba/ba- in the above sentence is due to the prefix of "bana" (children) and "batsoali" (parents).

Changing "batsoali" to "metsoalle" (friends) renders:

Bana bao ba batle ba kopane le MEtsoalle EA bona 'me MEtsoalle EA bona EA ba shapa.

Changing bana to "lintho", we get:

LIntho TSEo TSE Ntle LI kopane le metsoalle ea TSona 'me metsoalle ea TSona ea LI shapa.

External links


  • Ethnologue report for Sesotho (
  • ( A great starting point for beginning to learn Sesotho. It includes a lot of misleading information, however (e.g. the vowel table used to have only 7 vowels), but nothing outright wrong. A great resource on Basotho culture, as well.
  • Weblog on Sesotho (


A bit of the technical material is from Textbook of Southern Sotho Grammar by C. M. Doke and S. M. Mofokeng published by Longman Southern Africa, 3rd impression (1974).

af:Suid-Sotho de:Sesotho nl:Zuid-Sotho


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools