The Sesotho language, also known as Southern Sotho, is part of the Sotho language group, along with Western and Northern Sotho. The history of the Sotho people dates back as far as the first century and lays claim to an intriguing past that is still celebrated in Sesotho language oral and literary traditions today.
Classification of the Sesotho Language
Sesotho is classified as a member of the Sotho group of the Southeastern or Nguni subgroup of the Bantu language family, which includes an estimated 500 languages. The Bantu languages belong to the Benue-Congo division of the Niger-Congo family of languages. Sesotho is most closely related to Setswana or Tswana (also known as Western Sotho) and Sesotho sa Leboa (also known as Northern Sotho), the other languages that share the Sotho linguistic classification.
Early History of the Sesotho Language: The Bantu Migration
The term Bantu can refer both to the Bantu language family and to a shared Bantu cultural heritage. In recent years, however, it has been increasingly used to indicate solely a linguistic classification.
The Bantu people are believed to have originated in the areas of what is now Cameroon and Nigeria. From circa 2000 BC to 1000 AD, they migrated southward in one of the largest human migrations in history.
Early in their history, the Bantu people divided into two linguistic groups, Eastern and Western. The Sesotho people are one of many tribal groups descended from the Bantu that came to develop their own language and culture.
History of the Sotho People
Little is known about early Sotho history.
Some scholars believe that the area between the Limpopo, Molopo and Harts rivers served as the earliest point of Sotho settlement. Another theory points to the Ntsuanatsatsi Hill in the Free State as the point of origin for the ruling lineage of the Kingdom of Lesotho. It is generally believed that the Sotho people had established themselves in the region of present-day Lesotho as early as 1600 AD.
Historically, the Sotho people relied primarily on hunting and crops to maintain their livelihood. The Sotho are also noted for their skill in iron smelting. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence suggesting the presence of Sotho-speaking iron smelters dispersed across an area from northern South Africa to Botswana.
According to Sotho oral tradition, the founding lineage of the Sotho people was well-versed in the art of iron smelting. Oral traditions and ritual dances celebrate this past, commemorating a founding father who “danced to iron.”
Thanks to their skill in iron and leather works, and ivory and wood carving, the Sotho people are believed to have established trade patterns with outsiders well before the arrival of Europeans.
Archaeologists have found evidence suggesting that China had opened trade with southeast Africa as early as the 12th century, possibly via routes along the waterways of the Limpopo River.
Development of the Written Sesotho Language
The Sesotho language was first translated into written form thanks to the work of French missionary Eugene Casalis, who came to modern-day Lesotho in 1833.
Casalis compiled the first Sesotho grammar book, “Etudes sur la Langua Sechuana,” which appeared in 1841. Casalis’s work was carried on by the Reverend A. Mabille, who compiled the first known list of Sesotho language words and is also responsible for establishing a printing press in Morija, Lesotho, which is still there today.
A number of other missionary efforts helped to further the development of the written Sesotho language. In 1872, a Sesotho language translation of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” appeared. A Sesotho language translation of the Bible completed by missionaries in the mid-19th century utilized the Kwena dialect, which subsequently became the standard for the written Sesotho language.
Written Sesotho in the Kingdom of Lesotho vs. South Africa
It is important to note the distinction between written Sesotho in South Africa and Lesotho. Key differences exist between the orthographies of South African Sesotho (SASe) and Sesotho of Lesotho (LSe).
Take the Sesotho word for “mother” for instance: in the SASe form this is written as “mosadi,” while in the LSe form it is written as “mosali.”
Some linguists have suggested developing a common orthography for the Sesotho languages of South Africa and Lesotho – or even for all the Sotho languages (including Northern and Western Sotho). This development has yet to occur.
Modern Sesotho Language
Today the Sesotho language is found primarily in the Kingdom of Lesotho and the Republic of South Africa. It is widely spoken throughout Lesotho, where it serves as the primary official language. Sesotho is also one of 11 official languages of South Africa, where an estimated 3.5 million Sesotho language speakers are concentrated primarily in the Free State, Eastern Cape and Gauteng provinces.
Small communities of Sesotho language speakers can also be found in Namibia and Zambia. The modern Sesotho language includes a variety of loanwords from the nearby Zulu and Xhosa languages, as well as from English and Afrikaans.
Sesotho Language Literature
The introduction of a writing system to the Sesotho language paved the way for the development of a rich body of Sesotho language literature. A notable early example of a literary Sesotho language work is Azariele M. Sekese’s 1893 compilation of Sotho oral traditions, “Mekhoa ea Basotho la maele le litsomo” (“Customs and Stories of the Sotho”).
Much of 20th century Sesotho literature focuses on historical events significant to the Sotho people. J.J. Machobane’s “Mahaheng a matso” (“In the Dark Caves”) explores events that took place during the reign of Sotho chief Moshoeshoe, while M. Damane’s 1948 novel “Moorosi, morena oa Baphuthi” (“Moorosi, the King of the Baphuthi”) tells the story of the Sotho ruler’s experience with the British.
Arguably the most important figure in Sesotho literature is Thomas Mokopu Mofolo, who wrote a number of novels including “Moeti oa bochabela” (“The Traveller of the East”) which appears to have been influenced by Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” The contrast between Christian and native African traditions which Mofolo explores in this work is another common theme of Sesotho literature.
Sesotho Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Suto, Suthu, Souto, Sotho, Sisutho
Language Family: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, S, Sotho-Tswana (S.30), Sotho
Official Language of: Lesotho
Spoken by Approximately 5,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
Learn About Other Languages
Spanish (Latin America)