Welcome to the third of Bangula’s language blogs, exploring South Africa’s diverse range of official languages and their current state of development.
Each blog will also be released in a translated version as we hope to encourage the use South Africa’s languages.
Xitsonga is a southern Bantu language and an official language of South Africa. It is spoken by 4.5% of the national population, or around 2.3 million people. It is used mainly in Limpopo (39.8% of Xitsonga speakers and 17% of the provincial population), Gauteng (34.9% of speakers and 6.6% of the provincial population) and Mpumalanga (18.3% and 10.4% of the provincial population).
It is also used in in southern Mozambique and south-eastern Zimbabwe. Xitsonga is similar to Xishangana, the language of the Shangaan people, with some Nguni influences.
It was officially created in 1875 at the Valdezia Mission Station and Elim/Waterval/ Shirley Mission Stations by two Swiss missionaries, Reverend Paul Berthoud and Reverend Ernest Creux. They combined various east coast dialects, such as Xigwamba, XiNkuna, Xihlengwe, XiTembe, XiValoyi, XiNyembani, Xitswa, XiRonga, and XiChopi. The Swiss missionaries blended all these east coast dialects into one and formed one super language, which they called ‘Thonga’, but later modified it and renamed it Xitsonga. The Swiss missionaries refused to recognise Tswa and Ronga as independent languages from Xitsonga because, according to them, Tswa and Ronga were 99% related to Xitsonga. At Valdezia Mission Station and the Elim Mission Station, Tswa and Ronga were swallowed, incorporated and disappeared into Xitsonga. But in Mozambique, Tswa, Ronga and Xitsonga are regarded as independent languages. The only differences between Tswa, Ronga and Xitsonga in Mozambique is that Ronga and Tswa are highly influenced by the Portuguese language, as Maputo and Matola are the homelands of the Ronga and Tswa people.
Home language to: 4.5% of the population (2 277 148 people)
Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Tswa-Ronga > Xitsonga
Alternate and historical names: Tsonga, Shitsonga, Thonga, Tonga, Shangana, Shangaan
Region: Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, North-West Province, Gaza Province, Maputo Province, Maputo City, Manica, Inhambane, Chikombezi, Malipati, Chiredzi
Ethnicity: Tsonga (Shangani)
Writing system: Latin (Tsonga alphabet)
Xitsonga uses the Latin alphabet. However, certain sounds are spelled using a combination of letters, which either do not exist in Indo-European languages, or may be intended to distinguish the language somewhat from other languages.
An example of this is the letter “x” taken from Portuguese orthography, which is pronounced /ʃ/. Therefore, the following words, , , , are written in Tsonga as -xuxa, xikolo, and xilo. Other spelling differences include the letter “c”, which is pronounced /t͡ʃ/. However, where the emphasis of a word is on the subsequent vowel, the letter is hardened by adding “h” to the Tsonga word -chava (fear).
Xitsonga has been standardised as a written language. However, there are many dialects within the language that may not pronounce words as they are written. For example, the Tsonga bible uses the word “byela” (tell), pronounced bwe-la; however, a large group of speakers would say “dzvela” instead.
Census 2011 and Ethnologue
Zwivhuya Matidza, Bangula Language Manager
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