The Fascinating Setswana Language

Written by Isabel Harmse

Setswana is an African language spoken in South Africa, Botswana, and parts of Namibia. It is the national language of Botswana, and one of the eleven official languages in South Africa. The language is sometimes referred to as Tswana. Setswana is one of three languages classified as the Sotho subgroup of the languages in the South-eastern Bantu group of the Bantu Language Family. The other two languages in this family are Southern Sotho (Sesotho or Seshweshwe) and Northern Sotho (sometimes referred to as Sepedi). The three languages are mutually intelligible, which means that speakers of these languages can carry on a conversation with each other, each one speaking his or her own language! (National African Language Resource Center (NALRC))

The development of the Setswana language is partly due to the European missionaries whose aim was to translate the Bible into the local languages. Tswana tribes are found in more than two provinces of South Africa, primarily in the North West, where about four million people speak the language. An urbanised variety, which is part slang and not the formal Setswana, is known as Pretoria Sotho, and is the principal unique language of the city of Pretoria. 

Sol Plaatje is considered to be one of the most famous Tswana speakers, having played an integral role in the history of our country. He was a journalist, writer and intellectual. He was also a founding member of the South African Native National Congress, a forerunner of the ANC. In addition, he translated some of Shakespeare’s works into Setswana. Purists are disappointed when Setswana is equated with Tswana. They consider the two to be totally separate languages. Setswana speakers are often referred to as Tswanas – a term regarded as erroneous by those who prefer the term Batswana people, even though some linguists argue that it is common practice to drop the language prefix when referring to African languages, hence Tswana ( 


Setswana was the first language of the Sotho group to have a written form (in 1806), emerging through the work of Heinrich Lichstein (1806), who wrote a book “Upon the Language of the Beetjuana”, the first book about Setswana.

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