isiNdebele and Sesotho, Could They Be Sisters?

Authors: Nomsa Skosana (isiNdebele researcher) & Mmasibidi Setaka (Sesotho researcher) 

IsiNdebele and Sesotho are two of the eleven South African official languages. They are distinct and belong to different language clusters within the Niger Congo consortium of languages. IsiNdebele is one of the four Nguni languages: Siswati, isiZulu and isiXhosa. While, Sesotho forms part of the three Sotho languages: Sepedi and Setswana. IsiNdebele and Sesotho are not only from two different ethnic groups but they are also orthographically different. IsiNdebele as a Nguni language is conjunctively written, meaning that the language joins morphemes to form phrases or sentences like in the following example: ‘I love you’ is written as one word ‘ngiyakuthanda’. “These languages are basically agglutinating in nature since prefixes and suffixes are used extensively in word formation” (Taljard and Bosch 2006:429). While in Sesotho the same phrase is written as ‘ke a o rata’ which is disjunctively written. Taljard and Bosch (2006:429) share more about these aspects in their article titled, ‘A Comparison of Approaches to Word Class Tagging: Disjunctively vs. Conjunctively Written Bantu Languages’.

“Both these languages belong to a larger grouping of languages, i.e. the Sotho and Nguni language groups respectively. Languages belonging to the same language group are closely related and to a large extent mutually intelligible.” (Taljard and Bosch 2006:429)

Judging from these observations, it is rather controversial to assume that isiNdebele and Sesotho share certain words or properties. However, interestingly it has been found these two languages share similar sounds and lemmas, even though one language would glue together morphemes while the other separates them.

Since Mpumalanga and Free State are neighbouring provinces, it might be that there was language contact between speakers of these two languages, a term explained by Nordquist (2020) as “…the social and linguistic phenomenon by which speakers of different languages (or different dialects of the same language) interact with one another, leading to a transfer of linguistic features”.  When languages come into contact, other linguistic aspects like borrowing takes place between the languages in contact, and this might have been the case for isiNdebele and Sesotho. A phenomenon further explained by Mafela (2010):

 “Borrowing occurs when a language adds a word from another language to its own lexicon. Languages in neighbouring regions often borrow from each other. In South Africa, there are over nine indigenous languages, in addition to Afrikaans and English, all of which coexist. In their coexistence they borrow from one another”


In Table 1, we give examples of the similarities in sounds used to form words indicated for the two languages. The influence that these two languages have on each other is shown on the lexical terms and sounds they share. See examples in Table 1:











tshehla (pale/grey)

tshehla (yellow)








tlhayela (short of)

tlhapi (fish)


tlola (write)

tlola (apply moisturiser)

Table 1: IsiNdebele and Sesotho examples showing similar sounds in the two languages.

In Table 1, the main focus is on words that start with the sound ‘-t-’. When looking at the first word from the table, ‘isitjhaba’ and ‘setjhaba’ meaning ‘nation’ in English, both languages share the same sounds and are pronounced the same. The only difference in this word is the prefix addition of the preprefix ‘-i’ and prefix ‘-si’ for isiNdebele and se- for Sesotho, but the stem is the same. As indicated in the table, most of the lemmas follow this pattern.

The second word from the table, ‘itsetse’ and ‘letsetse’ also follows each language’s morphological and phonological rules, the lexical term in both languages refers to ‘a bug’ and is also pronounced the same. The third word ‘tshehla’ and ‘tshehla’ is also pronounced the same but in this case, it does not have the same meaning as shown in the table. ‘ithabo’ and ‘thabo’ in both languages is pronounced the same and has the same meaning ‘happiness/ pleasure’, same as the word ‘itjali’ and ‘tjale’ meaning ‘a small blanket/ a shawl’ and it is also pronounced the same. The sound -tlh- is pronounced the same but we have not discovered similar terms in this case. The last lexical term is written the same but has different meaning as indicated in the table.

To conclude, isiNdebele and Sesotho have had an impact on one another and this has been shown with the brief summary of words and sounds in table 1. Above observations also indicate that there were instances of word/lemma borrowing between these languages because languages that come in contact with each other will always influence each other. It is for this reason that Mafela (2010:693) notes that “neighbouring languages will always borrow from each other. No two languages come into contact without influencing each other”. This might be the fact that the two languages borrowed from each other.


Reference list

Mafela, M. J. (2010). Borrowing and Dictionary Compilation: The Case of the Indigenous South African Languages. Lexikos 20 (691-699).

Taljard, E. and Bosch, S. (2006). A Comparison of Approaches to Word Class Tagging: Disjunctively vs. Conjunctively Written Bantu Languages. Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(4): 428–442.

Nordquist, R. (2020). Definition and Examples of Language Contact. retrieved from accessed on 30 September 2020