Tswana, also known by its native name Setswana, and previously spelled Sechuana in English, is a Bantu language spoken in and indigenous to Southern Africa by about 8.2 million people.[1] It is closely related to the Northern Sotho and Southern Sotho languages, as well as the Kgalagadi language and the Lozi language.[3]

Native to
Native speakers
(4.1 million in South Africa (2011)
1.1 million in Botswana cited 1993)[1]
unknown numbers in Namibia and Zimbabwe
7.7 million L2 speakers in South Africa (2002)[2]
  • Rolong
  • Hurutshe
  • Kwena
  • Lete
  • Melete
  • Ngwaketse
  • Ngwatu
  • Kgatla
  • Tawana
  • Tlharo
  • Tlhaping
  • Thlahaping
  • Thlaro
Latin (Tswana alphabet)
Tswana Braille
Ditema tsa Dinoko
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1tn
ISO 639-2tsn
ISO 639-3tsn
Geographical distribution of Setswana in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks Setswana at home.
Geographical distribution of Setswana in South Africa: density of Setswana home-language speakers.
  <1 /km²
  1–3 /km²
  3–10 /km²
  10–30 /km²
  30–100 /km²
  100–300 /km²
  300–1000 /km²
  1000–3000 /km²
  >3000 /km²

Setswana is an official language of Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. It is a lingua franca in Botswana and parts of South Africa, particularly North West Province. Tswana speaking ethnic groups are found in more than two provinces of South Africa, primarily in the North West, where about four million people speak the language. An urbanised variety, which is part slang and not the formal Setswana, is known as Pretoria Sotho, and is the principal unique language of the city of Pretoria. The three South African provinces with the most speakers are Gauteng (circa 11%), Northern Cape, and North West (over 70%). Until 1994, South African Tswana people were notionally citizens of Bophuthatswana, one of the bantustans of the apartheid regime. The Setswana language in the Northwest Province has variations in which it is spoken according to the ethnic groups found in the Tswana culture (Bakgatla, Barolong, Bakwena, Batlhaping, Bahurutshe, Bafokeng, Batlokwa, Bataung, and Batswapong, among others); the written language remains the same. A small number of speakers are also found in Zimbabwe (unknown number) and Namibia (about 10,000 people).[1]



The first European to describe the language was the German traveller Hinrich Lichtenstein, who lived among the Tswana people Batlhaping in 1806 although his work was not published until 1930. He mistakenly regarded Tswana as a dialect of the Xhosa, and the name that he used for the language "Beetjuana" may also have covered the Northern and Southern Sotho languages.

The first major work on Tswana was carried out by the British missionary Robert Moffat, who had also lived among the Batlhaping, and published Bechuana Spelling Book and A Bechuana Catechism in 1826. In the following years, he published several other books of the Bible, and in 1857, he was able to publish a complete translation of the Bible.[4]

The first grammar of Tswana was published in 1833 by the missionary James Archbell although it was modelled on a Xhosa grammar. The first grammar of Tswana which regarded it as a separate language from Xhosa (but still not as a separate language from the Northern and Southern Sotho languages) was published by the French missionary, E. Casalis in 1841. He changed his mind later, and in a publication from 1882, he noted that the Northern and Southern Sotho languages were distinct from Tswana.[5]

Solomon Plaatje, a South African intellectual and linguist, was one of the first writers to extensively write in and about the Tswana language.[4]





The vowel inventory of Tswana can be seen below.[6]

Front Back
Close i ⟨i⟩ u ⟨u⟩
Near-close ɪ ⟨e⟩ ʊ ⟨o⟩
Open-mid ɛ ⟨ê⟩ ɔ ⟨ô⟩
Open a ⟨a⟩

Some dialects have two additional vowels, the close-mid vowels /e/ and /o/.[7] The circumflex on e and o in general Setswana writing is only encouraged at elementary levels of education and not at upper primary or higher; usually these are written without the circumflex.[8]



The consonant inventory of Tswana can be seen below.[9]

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
plain sibilant lateral
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ɲ ⟨ny⟩ ŋ ⟨ng⟩
voiceless p ⟨p⟩ t ⟨t⟩ ts ⟨ts⟩ ⟨tl⟩ ⟨tš⟩ k ⟨k⟩
voiced b ⟨b⟩ d ⟨d⟩ ⟨j⟩
aspirated ⟨ph⟩ ⟨th⟩ tsʰ ⟨tsh⟩ tɬʰ ⟨tlh⟩ tʃʰ ⟨tšh⟩ ⟨kh⟩ kχʰ ⟨kg⟩
Fricative f ⟨f⟩ s ⟨s⟩ ʃ ⟨š⟩ χ ⟨g⟩ h ⟨h⟩
Liquid r ⟨r⟩ l ⟨l⟩
Semivowel w ⟨w⟩ j ⟨y⟩

The consonant /d/ is merely an allophone of /l/, when the latter is followed by the vowels /i/ or /u/.[10] Two more sounds, v /v/ and z /z/, exist only in loanwords.

Tswana also has three click consonants, but these are only used in interjections or ideophones, and tend only to be used by the older generation, and are therefore falling out of use. The three click consonants are the dental click /ǀ/, orthographically ⟨c⟩; the lateral click /ǁ/, orthographically ⟨x⟩; and the palatal click /ǃ/, orthographically ⟨q⟩.[11]

There are some minor dialectal variations among the consonants between speakers of Tswana. For instance, /χ/ is realised as either /x/ or /h/ by many speakers; /f/ is realised as /h/ in most dialects; and /tɬ/ and /tɬʰ/ are realised as /t/ and /tʰ/ in northern dialects.[12]

The consonant /ŋ/ can exist at the end of a word without being followed by a vowel (as in Jwaneng and Barolong Seboni).



Stress is fixed in Tswana and thus always falls on the penult of a word, although some compounds may receive a secondary stress in the first part of the word. The syllable on which the stress falls is lengthened. Thus, mosadi (woman) is realised as [mʊ̀ˈsáːdì].[13]



Tswana has two tones, high and low, but the latter has a much wider distribution in words than the former. Tones are not marked orthographically, which may lead to ambiguity.[14]

go bua /χʊ búa/ "to speak"
go bua /χʊ bua/ "to skin an animal"
o bua Setswana /ʊ́búa setswána/ "He speaks Setswana"
o bua Setswana /ʊbúa setswána/ "You speak Setswana"

An important feature of the tones is the so-called spreading of the high tone. If a syllable bears a high tone, the following two syllables will have high tones unless they are at the end of the word.[15]

simolola /símʊlʊla/ > /símʊ́lʊ́la/ "to begin"
simologêla /símʊlʊχɛla/ > /símʊ́lʊ́χɛla/ "to begin for/at"



Tswana orthography is based on the Latin alphabet.

Letter(s) a b ch d e ê f g h i j k l m n o ô p ph q r s š t th tl tlh tsh u v w x y z

The letter š was introduced in 1937, but the corresponding sound is still sometimes written as ⟨sh⟩. The letters ⟨ê⟩ and ⟨ô⟩ are used in textbooks and language reference books, but not so much in daily standard writing.[16][17]





Nouns in Tswana are grouped into nine noun classes and one subclass, each having different prefixes. The nine classes and their respective prefixes can be seen below, along with a short note regarding the common characteristics of most nouns within their respective classes.[18]

Class Singular Plural Characteristics
1. mo- ba- Persons
1a. bô- Names, kinship, animals
2. mo- me-
(including bodyparts, tools,
instruments, animals, trees, plants)
3. le- ma-
4. se- di-
5. n-
(but also miscellaneous)
6. lo- Miscellaneous
(including a number of collective nouns)
7. bo- ma- Abstract nouns
8. go- Infinitive forms of verbs
9. fa-

Some nouns may be found in several classes. For instance, many class 1 nouns are also found in class 1a, class 3, class 4, and class 5.[19]

Further reading

  • Bennett, Wm. G.; Diemer, Maxine; Kerford, Justine; Probert, Tracy; Wesi, Tsholofelo (2016). "Setswana (South African)". Illustrations of the IPA. Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 46 (2): 235–246. doi:10.1017/S0025100316000050, with supplementary sound recordings.




  1. ^ a b c Tswana at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Webb, Victor N. (2002). Language in South Africa: The Role of Language in National Transformation, Reconstruction and Development. Philadelphia: John Benjamins. p. 78. ISBN 978-90-272-9763-1.
  3. ^ Makalela, Leketi (2009). "Harmonizing South African Sotho Language Varieties: Lessons From Reading Proficiency Assessment". International Multilingual Research Journal. 3 (2): 120–133. doi:10.1080/19313150903073489. S2CID 143275863.
  4. ^ a b Janson & Tsonope 1991, pp. 36–37
  5. ^ Janson & Tsonope 1991, pp. 38–39
  6. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 16
  7. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 19
  8. ^ Otlogetswe, Thapelo J (2016). "The Design of Setswana Scrabble". South African Journal of African Languages. 36 (2): 153–161. doi:10.1080/02572117.2016.1252008. S2CID 63584935.
  9. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 10
  10. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 3
  11. ^ University of Botswana 2001, pp. 11–12
  12. ^ University of Botswana 2001, pp. 14–15
  13. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 32
  14. ^ University of Botswana 2001, pp. 31–32
  15. ^ University of Botswana 2001, p. 34
  16. ^ Lekgogo, Olemme; Winskel, Heather (December 2008). "Learning to read Setswana and English: Cross-language transference of letter knowledge, phonological awareness and word reading skills". Perspectives in Education. 26 (4).
  17. ^ "Тсвана-русская практическая транскрипция". iling-ran.ru. Retrieved 19 July 2022.
  18. ^ Cole 1955, pp. 68–69
  19. ^ Cole 1955, p. 70