The Origin of Xitsonga as language in South Africa

Written by Isabel Harmse

For many South Africans, myself included, the importance of heritage month suddenly came back into the spotlight a couple of years ago (2005, to be exact) thanks to Jan Braai’s media campaign proposing that Heritage Day, celebrated on 24 September, be renamed National Braai Day (the South African equivalent of a barbeque). This resulted in a brand new unison amongst South Africans of all cultures; braai fires were being lit in accordion all over the country and, from that day, we became even more aware of the many components of our rainbow nation. I would like to take you along on a journey during this heritage month, exploring the history and origin of some of our native languages. First stop: Xitsonga.

At 4% of the population (about 2.3 million), Xitsonga speakers make up the eighth largest language group in South Africa. According to, the first Tsonga speakers to enter the former Transvaal probably did so during the 18th Century. Even though the language is spoken throughout Southern Africa, it is more concentrated in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa, with the majority of Tsonga speakers living in the Limpopo Province.

The Tsonga language is not an easy language to master. It makes use of specific sounds to spell, using a combination of different letters. The letters of which it comprises are not a part of the European language. Numerous dialects of the language Tsonga are used as far south as KwaZulu-Natal and as far north as the Save River in Zimbabwe. Most of the dialects are equally comprehensible, but they do have noticeable differences, which are generally geographical and based on the pressure from the colonial era (

Even though Tsonga speakers are mainly based in South Africa, the Tsonga language does not use the English alphabet. In fact, they make use of the Latin alphabet.

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