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Setswana is a language spoken in Southern Africa by about 6.1 million people. It is a Bantu language belonging to the Niger–Congo language family within the Sotho languages branch of Zone S (S.30) and is closely related to the Northern and Southern Sotho languages as well as the Kgalagadi language and the Lozi language.

Setswana is an official language and lingua franca of Botswana, spoken by a little over two million of its inhabitants. The majority of Setswana speakers are found in South Africa, where a little over four million people speak the language and where an urbanised variety known as Pretoria Sotho is the principal language of that city. Until 1994, South African Tswana people were notionally citizens of Bophuthatswana, one of the bantustans of the apartheid regime. Although Setswana is significantly spoken in South Africa and Botswana, a small number of speakers are also found in Zimbabwe and Namibia, where respectively 29 400 and 12 300 people speak the language.

The first European to describe Setswana was the German traveller H Lichtenstein, who lived among the Tswana people in 1803. He mistakenly regarded Setswana as a dialect of isiXhosa, and the name he used for the language, “Beetjuana”, may also have covered the Northern and Southern Sotho languages.

Hinrich Lichtenstein

Recent terminology

ch (mochohru)

kj (sseaakja)

ss (bussecho)

r (mochohru)

tj (tjabihle)

sch (kammuscho)

g (mogôdu)

tl (seatla)

s (bosigo)

d (mogôdu)

tlh (tlhabile)

š (ka mošo)

The first major work on Setswana was carried out by the British missionary Robert Moffat, who had also lived among the Batlhaping and published Bechuana spelling book and A Bechuana catechism in 1826. In the following years he published several translations of books of the Bible, and in 1857 he was able to publish a complete translation of the Bible.

Moffat’s table of consonants




k kh


t th

tl tlh

c ch








The first grammar of Setswana was published in 1833 by the missionary James Archbell, although it was modelled on an isiXhosa grammar. The first grammar of Setswana which regarded it as a separate language from isiXhosa but still not as a separate language from the Northern and Southern Sotho languages was published by the French missionary E Casalis in 1841. He changed his mind later, and in a publication from 1882 he noted that the Northern and Southern Sotho languages are distinct from Setswana.

In 1876 the South African intellectual and linguist Solomon Plaatje was born, and he became the first writer to extensively write in and about Setswana. He became the first editor of the Setswana–English newspaper, Koranta ya Batswana. He was the most famous Setswana intellectual, journalist, linguist, politician, translator and writer. Plaatje was a founder member of the African National Congress, was fluent in at least seven languages, and was the first African on the continent to translate the works of Shakespeare into an African language, namely Setswana.

Plaatje’s translations encouraged Batswana to start writing in their own language. The first Setswana drama, entitled Motswasele II, by LD Raditladi was published in 1936. It was followed by a novel, Motimedi, by DP Moloto in 1938. In 1940 Moloto also wrote Mokwena, the second novel in the Setswana literature, and in 1949 MOM Seboni published a volume of poetry, Maboko, maloba le maabane. This period heralded the development and growth of Setswana language and literature.