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Sesotho sa Leboa




Sesotho sa Leboa – Background
Sesotho sa Leboa is the standard language shared by communities speaking different Sesotho varieties of the northern part of South Africa [Leboa means North]. These varieties are regarded as dialects of the same language. The language has an established orthography that has been in use in education, media and other official platforms. It is taught at the following institutions of higher learning in the Republic of South Africa: University of South Africa, University of Pretoria, University of Limpopo, University of Venda, University of Johannesburg, and Tshwane University of Technology. Sesotho sa Leboa is predominantly spoken in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, as well as in the northern parts of Gauteng province. It comprises various dialects that are geographically identifiable. Scholars have grouped these dialects slightly differently into clusters, based on specific characteristics being studied. Below are some of the main dialects grouped into clusters (Adapted from Unisa Study guide NSO301-3, 1996):

Historical overview
The communities listed above spoke their varieties, which were mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Values and narratives were passed down by word of mouth. It was only with the arrival of missionaries that the language was written. The missionaries arrived at different times, in different areas. The written form of this language is based on the Sepedi dialect which, together with Sekopa, was the first that the Berlin missionaries learnt. As other missionaries arrived in other northern Sesotho-speaking parts of the country, they each contributed to the development of the language, writing in the variety of the area they settled in. They did this through the churches, school books and teacher training colleges that they established. Several dialectal areas ended up forging ahead with development concurrently. Therefore different dialects contributed to the standardisation process, as was already reflected in the steadily merging usage of the language. The following points list the missionaries (who were major role players in early language development), the settlement area where their most contribution was made and major dialects of the areas: 

The Berlin Missionary Society: Ga Boleo – Middleburg, Mashishing, Ga Sekhukhune (Sekopa, followed by Sepedi)

The Anglican Church: insignificantly in Lydenburg, and later thrived West of Polokwane (Dialects of Polokwanne and surroundings – Mashashane; Moletši, Matlala)

The Dutch Reformed Church: Zoutpansberg area, Louis Trichardt (Sehananwa and Seṱokwa)

The Roman Catholic Church: insignificantly in Pilgrimsrest and Lydenburg (Sepulana and Sepedi), then significant contribution West of Polokwane (Dialects of Polokwanne and surroundings – Mashashane).

Amidst conflicting views around the name of the language, it is still uninformed to think that every Sesotho variety of the northern part of the country is Sepedi, or that the standard language is purely Sepedi. Basotho ba Leboa (Northern Sotho people) represent a complex group with diverse historical and genealogical origins. Clarifying the issue Mphahlele (1978:23) states “Calling every N. Sotho speaking person Mopedi is just as incorrect as referring to every Motswana as Morolong or Mokgatla.”


Kosch, IM and Kotzé, AE. 1996. Northern Sotho: Sound system. Only study guide for NSE301-3 (Revised Edition). Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Mokgokong, P.C. 1966. A dialect-geographical survey of the phonology of the Northern Sotho area. Unpublished M.A. Dissertation. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Mphahlele, M.C.J. 1978. The development, role and influence of missionary teacher-training institutions in the territory of Lebowa 1903-1953: An historical-pedagogical survey. Unpublished D.Ed Thesis. Turfloop: University of the North.

South Africa. 2001. Publication of a board notice in terms of section 8(11) of the Pan South African Language Board Act, 1995 (Act No. 55 of 1995). Government Gazette 22223, April 20 (Board Notice 76 of 2001)


Compiled by: Prof Mampaka Lydia Mojapelo

Sesotho sa Leboa

ALASA (2019)