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Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho)

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General information
Name: Sesotho sa Leboa
English name: Northern Sotho
Other names: North Sotho, Sepedi, Pedi
Population: 4,208,980
ISO code: nso
Spoken in the following countries: South Africa (Official), Botswana


Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho, or literally, "Sotho of the North") is mostly spoken in the North-Eastern parts of South Africa, generally North-East of Tshwane (Pretoria), in parts of Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga (see map). It is used as a home language by 4,208,980 (9.39 %) of South Africans [2001 census data]. Sesotho sa Leboa is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa.

Sesotho sa Leboa is most closely related to two other languages in the Sotho language group, Southern Sotho and Setswana. These two also encompass a number of dialects, and all three overlap somewhat. The division into these three main "languages" has generally been based more on historical and social factors than linguistic factors. There is a fairly large amount of mutual intelligibility between all three; a speaker of one of the three languages is usually able to understand most of what a speaker of one of the others is saying.

"Sepedi" or "Sesotho sa Leboa"?
=> The "official" Northern Sotho language attempts to encompass a collection of approximately 30 related dialects, all generally mutually intelligible, and all related to Sepedi, which specifically is the language of the Bapedi (Pedi people). Historically, what is now the official language has been based primarily on Sepedi, as the missionaries who developed the orthography mainly had contact with the Bapedi. The name "Sepedi" thus came to be regarded, somewhat incorrectly, as being synonymous with "Sesotho sa Leboa", and further confusion arose when the constitution cited "Sepedi" as being the official language. This is not strictly correct, as it would exclude other Northern Sotho dialects from official recognition. Thus when referring to the official language, it is preferable to use the term "Sesotho sa Leboa" or "Northern Sotho". When referring to the language of the Bapedi, the correct term is "Sepedi".

Northern Sotho language tree
Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho) language family tree.

Geographical distribution

Approximate geographical distribution of northern sotho speakers
A map showing the approximate geographical area of South Africa where Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho) is spoken. The area is indicated in brown.

Northern Sotho phrases

Pronunciation notes:

"š": š is pronounced as you would pronounce "sh" in English. Note, however, that when "sh" appears in a Sotho word, it is not pronounced as "sh" in English. Rather, it is pronounced more like plain English "s"; the h indicates that there is a slight release of breath following the s.

Vowels: There are seven vowel sounds in Sesotho sa Leboa: a, e, ê, i, o, ô and u. Unfortunately for beginners, the circumflexes ("^") on ê and ô are not usually used in writing; they are generally only used in Sesotho sa Leboa learning material and in dictionaries and the like. This means that for "e" and "o", you cannot always derive the pronunciation of a word from the spelling; the pronunciation must just be learned.

Vowel: Pronunciation:
aSimilar to "i" in "kite"
eSimilar to "ee" in "feet"
êSimilar to "a" in "care", or "e" in "bed"
iSimilar to "i" in "pick"
oSimilar to "o" in "tool"
ôSimilar to "oo" in "door"
uSimilar to "u" in "put"

English Northern Sotho Pronunciation
Good morning/afternoon/evening (Hello) (To one person)Dumela Dumêla
Good morning/afternoon/evening (Hello) (To more than one person)Dumelang Dumêlang
Good morning/afternoon/evening (Hello)Thobela Thôbêla
How are you? (To one person) O kae? O kae?
How are you? (Plural: Said to more than one person, or respectful)Le kae? Le kae?
I am fine Ke gona Ke gôna
We are fine Re gona Re gôna
Goodbye ("Stay well!") Šala gabotse! Šala gabotse!
Goodbye ("Stay well!") (to more than one person) Šalang gabotse! Šalang gabotse!
Goodbye ("Go well!") Sepela gabotse! Sepela gabotse!
Goodbye ("Go well!") (to more than one person) Sepelang gabotse! Sepelang gabotse!
Thank you Ke a leboga Ke a leboga
Yes Ee Êê
No Aowa Aowa
What is the time? Ke nako mang? Ke nakô mang?
I speak Sotho Ke bolela Sesotho Ke bolêla Sesotho
I can't speak Sotho Ga ke bolele Sesotho Ga ke bolêle Sesotho
How much is this? (i.e. cost)Ke bokae? Ke bokae?
May I please have ... Ke kgopela ... Ke kgôpêla ...

Days of the week Matšatši a beke
Monday Mošupologô
Tuesday Labobêdi
Wednesday Laboraro
Thursday Labonê
Friday Labohlano
Saturday Mokibêlô
Sunday Sôntaga (or: Lamorêna)

The numbers 1 to 10, in Sesotho sa Leboa:
6tshela / sela -> selelago / tshelelago

What's the difference between "Sesotho" and "Sotho"?

You might be wondering why both "Sesotho" and "Sotho" are used, and what the difference is.

Grammatically, the word "sesotho" is formed from two parts: "-sotho", which is a so-called "noun stem", and "se-", which is a "noun prefix" that is attached to the stem in order to form the noun "Sesotho". All nouns in Sesotho sa Leboa are formed in this way (prefix + stem). Different prefixes are used to form related nouns (i.e. that have the same noun stem).

For nouns that relate to a particular ethnic group, the noun stem indicates the ethnic group, and certain prefixes are usually used to generate nouns for things related to that ethnic group, for example:

Northern Sotho word Expressed in English
Sesotho Language of the Sotho people
Mosotho A Sotho speaking person
Basotho Sotho people (plural of Mosotho)
Lesotho Country of the Basotho (in this case, Southern Sotho)

The word "Sotho", by itself, is strictly an English word, and is usually used either to refer to the language itself (e.g. "Can you speak Sotho?"), or to the ethnic/language grouping in general (e.g. "He has a Sotho girlfriend"). In Northern Sotho, the word "Sotho" cannot appear by itself, it must take a prefix. However, it is acceptable to use "Sesotho" in English, and it is in fact becoming more common to do so (although in that case "Sesotho" refers only to the Sotho language itself).

Noun classes

Generally, noun stems can never be used on their own in Northern Sotho: they must be used in their full form, that is, they must be prefixed by a valid prefix. The majority of noun stems may take only two possible prefixes; one indicates the singular form of the noun, and the other indicates plural. For example, the Northern Sotho noun stem for door is "-bati". The noun for "door" takes the singular prefix "le-" to form "lebati", and for "doors" it takes the plural prefix "ma-" to form "mabati".

The various prefixes correspond to what are more generally called "noun classes". Nouns thus usually "belong" to two noun classes: one singular, and one plural. Loosely speaking, there are about 14 noun classes in Northern Sotho.

This so-called "noun class system" is a prominent characteristic of Northern Sotho, as well as its related languages, namely the so-called Bantu languages. The formation of many grammatical constructions depend on the noun class of the noun being used.

If you are learning Northern Sotho, you might find this noun class reference chart handy (note: this is for reference/study purposes, but it assumes you have already studied the grammar).

Entering Sesotho sa Leboa characters (š, Š, ê, Ê, ô, Ô) on a computer

In Windows, hold in "Alt" and type 0154 on the numeric keypad to make an "š". To make an uppercase "Š", hold in "Alt" and type 0138.

On older, terrible versions of Windows (such as Windows 95/98), the character may appear as a small solid block, depending on the font used. However, this is just a display problem, the character should still be encoded correctly. In some cases, selecting a different font may solve this.

In Microsoft Word, you can also use the shortcut key combination "Ctrl+Alt+Shift+6+s" (Ctrl+Alt+^+s) for Š, and "Ctrl+Alt+Shift+6, s" (Ctrl+Alt+^, s) for š.

Although the circumflexes on the ê and ô characters are generally not used in normal every-day writing of Sesotho sa Leboa, they are usually used in language learning resources, in order to clarify pronunciation. These characters can be entered as follows: ê: Alt+136, Ê: Alt+0202, ô: Alt+147, Ô: Alt+0212.

SCAM WARNING: Some companies, whose business includes selling fonts, are implying on their websites (not explicitly stating, but giving the impression) that you need to purchase additional fonts to be able to use Sesotho sa Leboa characters. This is NOT the case. On Windows, you do not need any additional third-party products (such as fonts) to use any of the characters required for Sesotho sa Leboa.

Windows Character Map: In general, use "Windows Character Map" to locate non-keyboard characters. This tool, if installed, can be found under "Start / Programs / Accessories / System Tools". Character Map also displays the keystrokes to use to enter a character, if available.

Š/š characters: information for web developers

It should be noted that the Š and š characters are not actually part of the standard iso-8859-1 character set (*), even though in most cases specifying the page encoding as iso-8859-1 will work. This seems counter-intuitive, but there is an explanation.

These characters were added by Microsoft, along with some other characters, as an extension to iso-8859-1 that is called "windows-1252", and is backwards-compatible with iso-8859-1. Microsoft then implemented their own software (such as Internet Explorer) to treat "iso-8859-1" as if it were "windows-1252". Internet Explorer thus actually "incorrectly" displays the Š/š characters even if the web page encoding is specifically specified as being "iso-8859-1". This is obviously not correct because the iso-8859-1 standard does not include these characters.

Now, many web page developers unwittingly incorrectly specify iso-8859-1 when the content of their page is actually windows-1252 (e.g. if the web page has "smart quotes" - typically if written using, surprise, other Microsoft products such as Microsoft Word). In the past, this resulted in many character display problems (e.g. seeing question marks where characters such as smart quotes should be) on all browsers other than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. This rather cleverly left browsers other than IE looking bad (i.e. not displaying pages "properly") even though those other browsers were just doing the "right thing" and following standards!

Because of the general prevalence of such character display problems, the developers of other web browsers (on Windows as well as other platforms such as Linux) have since begun to work around the problem by also treating "iso-8859-1" as implying "windows-1252". Thus, on most new browsers, either can be specified as the encoding for a web page, and it will display correctly. However, older browsers will still regard iso-8859-1 as actually being iso-8859-1, and will fail to display the windows-1252 specific characters. Unfortunately, some old browsers on other platforms may also not even recognize "windows-1252" at all, since it is not really an industry standard.

Bottom line though: standards-wise, the correct encoding to specify, if your page is windows-1252, is "windows-1252".

There are other better alternatives though:
(1) Use Unicode instead, and encode the page as utf-8.
(2) Use the HTML entities Š (Š) and š (š).

(*) This is the line in the "head" section of a web page that looks like this:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=windows-1252">

Northern Sotho dictionaries

Online dictionaries / Electronic dictionaries

Online Northern Sotho (Sesotho sa Leboa) - English dictionary
New (22 April 2003). Over 24900 Sesotho sa Leboa to English entries.
(This online dictionary is compiled within the framework of Simultaneous Feedback).

Pukuntšutlhaloši ya Sesotho sa Leboa ka Inthanete /
Online Explanatory Sesotho sa Leboa Dictionary

New (10 June 2004) online monolingual Northern Sotho dictionary.

Linguistics Terminology: Northern Sotho - English

Birds and Trees List: English to Northern Sotho (Flora and Fauna)


Oxford Bilingual School Dictionary: Northern Sotho and English / Pukuntšu ya Polelopedi ya Sekolo: Sesotho sa Leboa le Seisimane. E gatišitšwe ke Oxford
Oxford Bilingual School Dictionary: Northern Sotho and English / Pukuntšu ya Polelopedi ya Sekolo: Sesotho sa Leboa le Seisimane. E gatišitšwe ke Oxford (Gilles-Maurice de Schryver et al.). New (2007), modern Northern Sotho - English bilingual dictionary with many interesting and useful features, such as real usage examples at every entry (mostly corpus-based), most frequent words indicated, detailed part of speech and grammatical information, proper word sense breakdowns etc.
[ Buy from | Buy from | Publisher link ]

Popular Northern Sotho dictionary
Popular Northern Sotho dictionary (DJ Prinsloo, BP Sathekge, TJ Kriel). Northern Sotho - English, English - Northern Sotho.
(This remains one of the most useful dictionaries if you are learning Northern Sotho (or are Northern Sotho speaking and learning English).)
[ Buy from | Buy from | Buy from | Pharos (publisher) link ]

South African Oxford Multilingual Primary Dictionary (Sotho) (OUPSA)
[ Buy from | Publisher link ]


Learning Northern Sotho

  • A Linguistic Analysis of Northern Sotho (G Poulos, LJ Louwrens) An excellent and comprehensive Northern Sotho grammar reference. A must-have if you intend learning Northern Sotho.
    [ Buy from | Buy from ]


  • Northern Sotho Translation TshwaneDJe Language Services (Translation, Proofreading, Editing, Transcription and more, for all official South African languages and most major world languages).

Radio stations



Northern Sotho Part-of-Speech Tagger
Northern Sotho Part-of-Speech Tagger - Demo.

Northern Sotho Diacritic Restoration
Diacritic Restoration for Northern Sotho and other African Languages.

Linguistic lineage for Northern Sotho.

A non-profit organization translating various OpenSource software packages such as and the Mozilla web browser into all official South African languages. They have released isiZulu, Sesotho sa Leboa and Afrikaans versions of OpenOffice.


Northern Sotho

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Northern Sotho
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