Northern Sotho language

Native to South Africa
Region Gauteng, 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 by Pan South African Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-2 nso
ISO 639-3 Variously:
nso  Pedi etc.
brl  Birwa
two  Tswapong
Glottolog nort3233  North Sotho + South Ndebele[4]
Person Mopedi
People Bapedi
Language Sepedi

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. Northern Sotho is thus most closely related to Southern Sotho (mostly referred to as just Sesotho), Setswana, sheKgalagari and siLozi. It is a standardized dialect, amalgamating several distinct varieties or dialects.

Lobedu (also Khilovedu or Selobedu) exists only in an unwritten form, and the standard Northern Sotho language and orthography is usually used for teaching and writing by this language community. The monarch associated with this language community is Queen Modjadji (also known as the Rain Queen). Lobedu is spoken mainly in the area of Modjadjiskloof in the Limpopo Province. Its speakers are known as the Balobedu.

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

Confusion of nomenclature with Sepedi

Northern Sotho is often equated with the dialect it is primarily based on, 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.

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), 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 language of the Pedi people, 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

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)
  • Sebididi(Sotho/Tswana) spoken in Setateng
  • Phahladira
  • Ga-Monyeki
  • Abbortspoort
  • 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 northeastern 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

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). 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 Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
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
WelcomeKamogelo (noun) / Amogela (verb)
Good day / HelloDumela (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 fineKe gona.
I am fine too, thank youLe nna ke gona, ke a leboga.
Thank youKe a leboga (I thank you) / Re a leboga (we thank you)
Good luckMahlatse
Have a safe journeyO 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 jobKe nyaka mošomô
No smokingGa go kgogwe (/folwe)
No entranceGa go tsenwe
Beware of the steps!Hlokomela disetepese!
Congratulations on your birthdayMahlatse letšatšing la gago la matswalo
Seasons greetingsDitumedišo tša Sehla sa Maikhutšo
Merry ChristmasMahlogonolo a Keresemose
Merry Christmas and Happy New YearMahlogonolo a Keresemose le ngwaga wo moswa wo monate
ExpressionGontsha sa mafahleng
thank youke a leboga
excuse mentshwarele
I am sorryKe maswabi
I love youKe a go rata
Questions / sentencesDipotšišo / 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?
1one -tee
2two – pedi
3three – tharo
4four – nne
5five – hlano
6six – tshela
7seven – šupa
8eight – seswai
9nine – senyane
10ten – lesome
11eleven – lesometee
12twelve – lesomepedi
13thirteen – lesometharo
14fourteen – lesomenne
15fifteen – lesomehlano
20twenty – masomepedi
21twenty one – masomepedi-tee
22twenty two – masomepedi-pedi
50fifty – masomehlano
100hundred – lekgolo
1000thousand – sekete
Days of the weekMatšatši a beke
Months of the yearDikgwedi tša ngwaga
Computers and Internet termsDidirishwa tsa khomphutha le Inthanete
computersebaledi / khomphutara
e-mail addressaterese ya imeile
Internet cafékhefi ya Inthanete
website addressaterese 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. 1 2 3 Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "North Sotho + South Ndebele". 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 2018-07-24.
  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.
  10. Louwrens, Kosch, Kotzé, Louis J., Ingeborg M., Albert E. (1995). Northern Sotho. München: Lincom. pp. 4–11.


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