You say Northern Sotho, I say Sepedi

Written by Isabel Harmse

Also known as Northern Sotho or “Sesotho sa Laboa”, Sepedi is spoken by more than 4.2 million people and is proudly one of the official languages in South Africa. Generally, Sepedi is spoken in the Gauteng, Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga areas, but is also spoken in neighbouring Botswana. Sepedi is a so-called Bantu language, belonging to the language family of the Niger-Congo, which is most closely related to Setswana and Sesotho ( According to the South African National Census of 2011, it is the first language of over 4.6 million (9.1%) people, making it the 5th most spoken language in South Africa.

The Northern Sotho written language was based largely on the Sepedi dialect. Missionaries studied this dialect the most closely and first developed the orthography in 1860. This subsequently provided a common writing system for 20 or more varieties of the Sotho-Tswana languages spoken in the former Transvaal, and also helped lead to “Sepedi” being used as the umbrella term for the entire language family. Northern Sotho consists of up to 30 different dialects, one of which is Pedi. Much confusion surrounds this term, as Sepedi, the language spoken by the Pedi people, which has been often referred to as Northern Sotho, which is incorrect. 

The confusion between Northern Sotho and Pedi probably arises from the fact that the missionaries who developed the orthography for Northern Sotho mainly had contact with the Pedi people. However, Northern Sotho or Sesotho sa Leboa, is not the same as Sepedi. Sepedi is the language of the Pedi people, also known as the BaPedi (  

Northern Sotho can be subdivided into Highveld-Sotho, which consists of comparatively recent immigrants mostly from the west and southwest parts of South Africa, and Lowveld-Sotho, which consists of a combination of immigrants from the north of South Africa and Sotho inhabitants of longer standing.


Sepedi is the first dialect the German missionaries learned to speak and write.

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