Sesotho sa Leboa



Sesotho sa Leboa (Leboa means North) is the standard language shared by communities in the northern part of South Africa that speak different varieties of Sesotho, all regarded as dialects of the same vocabulary. The language has a regular orthography in education, mass media and other official platforms. It is taught at the following institutions of higher learning in the Republic of South Africa: the University of South Africa, the University of Pretoria, the University of Limpopo, the University of Venda, the University of Johannesburg, and the Tshwane University of Technology. Sesotho sa Leboa is predominantly spoken in the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, as well as in the northern parts of Gauteng province, and it comprises various geographically identifiable dialects. Scholars have grouped these dialects – in slightly different ways – into clusters based on specific characteristics being studied. Such a grouping of some of the main dialects is illustrated below:

Historical overview

The communities listed above have always spoken their varieties, which were mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Nonetheless, values and narratives were passed down by word-of-mouth. It was only with the arrival of missionaries at different times and in other areas that the language came to be recorded in written form. In any event, the written form of this language is based on the Sepedi dialect, which, together with Sekopa, was the first that the Berlin missionaries – who settled in Botšhabelo in the 1860s – 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, doing so through the churches and teacher training colleges they established as well as through the books they published. Development ended up forging ahead concurrently in several dialectical areas meaning that a variety of dialects contributed to the standardisation
process – something 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 greatest contributions were made, and the major dialects of the areas:

The Berlin Missionary Society: GaBoleo – Middleburg, Mashishing, GaSekhukhune (Sekopa, followed by Sepedi)
The Anglican Church: insignificantly in Lydenburg, but later thrived west of Polokwane (Dialects of Polokwane 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), and then significant contribution west of Polokwane (Dialects of Polokwane 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. In 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, I.M. and Kotzé, A.E. 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 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