Tswana or Setswana is a language spoken in Southern Africa by about 4.5 million people. It is a Bantu language belonging to the Niger–Congo language family within the Sotho languages branch of Zone S (S.30), and is closely related to the Northern- and Southern Sotho languages, as well as the Kgalagadi language and the Lozi language.

Tswana is an official language and lingua franca of Botswana spoken by almost 1.1 million of its inhabitants. However, the majority of Tswana speakers are found in South Africa where 3.4 million people speak the language. Until 1994, South African Tswana people were notionally citizens of Bophuthatswana, one of the few bantustans that actually became reality as planned by the Apartheid regime. A small number of speakers are also found in Zimbabwe and Namibia, where 29,400 and 12,300 people speak the language, respectively.


The first person in history to describe the Tswana language was the German traveller H. 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 language, and the name he used for the language "Beetjuana" may also have covered the Northern- and Southern Sotho languages.

The first major work on the Tswana language 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.

The first grammar of the Tswana language 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. It should be noted though that he changes his mind later, and in a publication from 1882, he notes that the Northern- and Southern Sotho languages are distinct from Tswana.

In 1876 the South African intellectual and linguist Solomon Plaatje was born, and he became one of the first writers to extensively write in and about the Tswana language.



The vowel inventory of Tswana can be seen below.

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

Some dialects have two additional vowels, the close-mid vowels /e/ and /o/.


It should be noted that the consonant /d/ is merely an allophone of /l/, when the latter is followed by the vowels /i/ or /u/.

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 /l/, Orthographically (c); the letral click /ll/, Orthographically (x); and the palatel click /i/, Orthographically(q).

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


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. It should also be noted that the syllable on which the stress falls is lengthened. Thus, mosadi is realized as [mʊ̀ˈsáːdì].


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

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 also get high tones, unless they are at the end of the word.

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



Nouns in Tswana are grouped into nine noun classes and one sub-class, 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 the respective class.

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 nouns of the class 1 are also found in class 1a, class 3, class 4 and class 5.

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