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3.4 million L2 speakers in South Africa (2002)
|Latin (Tsonga alphabet)|
Official language in
Tsonga or Xitsonga (Tsonga: Xitsonga) as an endonym, is a Bantu language spoken by the Tsonga people of southern Africa. It is mutually intelligible with Tswa and Ronga and the name "Tsonga" is often used as a cover term for all three, also sometimes referred to as Tswa-Ronga. The Xitsonga language has been standardised for both academic and home use. Tsonga is an official language of South Africa, and under the name "Shangani" it is recognised as an official language in the Constitution of Zimbabwe. All Tswa-Ronga languages are recognised in Mozambique. It is not official in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).
The Xitsonga language was studied in great detail by the Swiss missionary, Henri-Alexandre Junod between the year 1890 and 1920, who made the conclusion that the Xitsonga language (which he called the "Thonga language" at the time) began to develop in Mozambique even before the 1400s. In his own words, Junod states the following:
My conclusion is then that the Thonga language was already-spoken by the primitive occupants of the country more than 500 years ago and that, together with a certain number of customs, it formed the great bond which bound the Thonga clans together in past centuries.
Further studies were carried out by Junod and other Swiss missionaries such as Henri Berthoud and Ernest Creux, who began to unify the language in order to have a standard way of writing and reading. "Shigwamba" was a term used by the missionaries in order to group the language under a unified identity, however the name was unfamiliar to many of the Tsonga people and had to be replaced with "Thonga/Tsonga". Harries makes reference to this:
As the term Gwamba was unknown outside the Spelonken, Henri Berthoud recommended that the mission abandon the term and replace it with the widely accepted genericism, Tonga/Thonga.
Swiss missionaries engaged with the Tsonga people and used their assistance to translate the Bible from English and Sesotho into the Tsonga language. Paul Berthoud published the first book in 1883 which came as a result of the help he received from the translations by Mpapele (Mbizana) or Mandlati (Zambiki). The two men were active in teaching and translating the language to the missionaries since none of the missionaries were familiar with it and had to dedicate much of their time to learn it. The language of the Tsonga people and the dialects were put into print and the first books were published. The language was later on finally registered as "Xitsonga" within the Constitution of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996) and it was declared an official language. The standardization of the Xitsonga language as a result made it possible for the Tsonga people to develop a common way of speaking and writing.
The name "Tsonga" is the root of Xitsonga (culture, language or ways of the Tsonga), Mutsonga (a Tsonga person), Vatsonga (Tsonga people), etc. In the language of the Vatsonga themselves, the root never appears by itself. It is Tsonga for the ease and accessibility of the wider international community.
As for the origins of the name, there are three theories. The first states that Tsonga is another pronunciation for Dzonga, which means "South" and also the name of one of the dialects of Xitsonga. The second theory is that it is an alternate spelling of the old ancestral name of the Chopi and Tembe groups, Tonga/Thonga. The other Zulu explanation for the alternative spelling of "Thonga" is that the Tembe and Rhonga people, who were the first to arrive at the Delagoa Bay and around the Natal Bay, transitioned the Rhonga "Rh" into the Zulu form of "Th". An example is rhuma (Tsonga word for "send") becomes thuma (Zulu word for the same action). The third and most accepted is that it is another pronunciation for "Rhonga", the root for the word "vurhonga" for east or the direction where the sun rises. Vurhonga also means dawn in Xitsonga. Rhonga (commonly and wrongly spelt as Ronga) is one of the Tsonga languages. The physical evidence of most Tsonga people residing along the eastern coast of Africa in the south, extending inland in a westward direction, makes this explanation especially inviting. However Junod had initially used the Ronga appellation but had also realized that the northern clans did not frequently use the name 'Ronga' as their identity name, but most certainly Tsonga is a derivation of Ronga.
Much of the written history about the Tsonga regards the aftermath of the mfecane where the Nguni people overran many of the pre-existing African tribes of South Africa, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.
Tsonga is a Bantu language (Guthrie code S.53), closely related to other members to the Tswa-Ronga group (S.50):
Some dialects are subdialects but have been mentioned here for completeness. For example, Valoyi and Luleke comprise the N'walungu dialect. There is no Gwamba dialect as Gwamba is another name for Xitsonga itself. Formally Xitsonga has been called Gwamba. Tswa-Ronga dialects not considered part of the family include Pulana (Xipulana, Sepulane). What is commonly referred to as "Shangana/Changana" is not a recognized language in South Africa and is not a dialect that falls within the Xitsonga language group, as its distinctiveness stems mainly from the use of the Nguni language and grammar.
Only six Thonga/Tsonga dialects exist and these were identified by the dawn of the 1900s. These are namely xiRonga, xiHlanganu, xiBila, xiDjonga, xiN'walungu, and xiHlengwe. All other variations within South Africa are sub-dialects of the aforementioned. The dialects most spoken in the rural communities of Limpopo are the N'walungu, Bila, Hlengwe, and the Hlanganu dialects. The Xitsonga vocabulary and phonetic permutations are also largely based on these dialects (cf. Junod 1912, p. 470-473)
For "language of", the various languages and dialects employ one or more of the following prefixes: Bi-, Chi-, Ci-, Gi-, Ici-, Ki-, Ma-, Shee-, Shi-, Txi-, Va-, Wa-, and Xi-. For "people of", they use either "Ba-" or "Va-".
Tsonga has a distinction between modal and breathy voiced consonants: /b?, bv?, v?, d?, , d, / vs /b, bv, v, d, , d?, ?/ among the obstruents (the one exception being /?/), and /m?, n?, , r?, , w?/ vs /m, n, ?, r, j, w/ among the sonorants (the one exception being /?/).
Mid vowels can vary from close-mid to open-mid. It also has a distinction between allophones of vowels ranging from oral to nasal (e.g.  is an allophone of /e/).
Different consonant sounds may alternate the place of articulation. The click consonant sounds vary between dental and alveolar; [, , ?, , ] to [?!, ?!?, ?!, ?!, ?!?]. A number of Tsonga speakers may vary affricate sounds from alveolar to retroflex; [ts, ts?, dz, dz?, dz] to [t?, t, d?, d, d]. The latter are weakly whistled in both Tsonga proper and Changana dialect. Many consonants can be prenasalised as well. Labiodental and dental nasal consonants only occur in various consonant clusters.
Unlike some of the Nguni languages, Tsonga has very few words with click consonants, and these vary in place between dental and postalveolar. Examples are: ngqondo (mind), gqoka (wear/dress), guqa (kneel), riqingo (phone), qiqi (earring), qamba (compose), Mugqivela (Saturday).
The grammar is generally typical of Bantu languages with a subject-verb-object order. The structure changes to subject--object--verb when addressing another person:
|Ndza ku rhandza||I you love (I love you)|
|Wa ndzi rhandza||You love me|
|Ha ku tiva||We know you|
|Va ndzi tiva||They know me|
Almost all infinitives have the prefix ku- and end with -a.
|ku chava||To fear|
|ku tsaka||To rejoice|
|ku rhandza||to love|
The main exception to this is the verb "ku ri" - "to say" It corresponds to "ti" in many other bantu languages. Examples of its usage include:
u ri yini? - What do you say? (What are you saying?)
ndzi ri ka n'wina - I say to you all.
In many instances the "ri" is often omitted and thus "ku" on its own can also mean "say".
Va ri ndza penga - They say I'm crazy.
Va ri yini? - What do they say? (What are they saying?)
The present tense is formed by simply using the personal pronoun along with the verb.
Ndzi lava mali - I want money,
Hi tirha siku hinkwaro - We work all day,
Mi(u) lava mani? - Who are you looking for?
U kota ku famba - S/He knows how to walk.
Generally, to indicate ongoing actions in the present one takes the personal pronoun, drops the 'i' and adds 'a'.
Ndzi nghena (e)ndlwini - I am entering the house,
Ha tirha sweswi - We are working right now,
Ma hemba - You (plural) are lying,
Wa hemba - You (singular) are lying,
Wa hemba - S/He is lying,
With the plural 'va' (they) there is no difference. Thus 'va hemba' = they lie AND they are lying.
This is for in one of three ways, depending on the word.
(i) Generally, one drops the 'a' from the verb and adds the prefix '-ile'
Ndzi nghenile ndlwini - I entered the house,
Hi tirhile siku hinkwaro - We worked all day,
U hembile - You lied,
U hembile - S/He lied,
Va hembile - They lied.
(ii) With verbs that end with -ala, the past tense changes to -ele or -ale.
ku rivala - to forget,
Ndzi rivele - I forgot, U rivele - you forgot, Va rivele - they forgot,
Ku nyamalala - To disappear,
U nyamalarile - S/He - disappeared,
Words used to describe a state of being also use the past tense.
Ku karhala - To be tired,
Ndzi karhele - I am tired, U karhele - S/He is tired, Va karhele - They are tired.
(iii) In many cases merely changing the last 'a' in the verb to an 'e' indicates past action.
Ku fika - To arrive,
U fike tolo - S/He arrived yesterday,
Ndzi fike tolo - I arrived yesterday,
Hi tirhe siku hinkwaro - We worked all day,
Ndzi nghene (e)ndlwini - I entered the house.
This is formed by the adding 'ta' in between the personal pronoun and the verb.
Ndzi ta nghena (e)ndlwini - I will enter the house,
Hi ta tirha siku hinkwaro - We will work all day,
Va ta tirha siku hinkwaro - They will work all day,
Mi ta tirha siku hinkwaro - You (plural) will work all day.
Tsonga has several classes, much like other Bantu languages, which are learned through memorisation mostly. These are:
|1||mu-||mufana "boy", murhangeri "leader", munhu "person"|
|2||va-||vafana "boys", varhangeri "leaders", vanhu "people"|
|3||mu-, m-, n-||nseve "arrow", nenge "leg", nambu "river"|
|4||mi-||miseve "arrows", milenge "legs", milambu "rivers"|
|5||ri-, Ø-||tiko "country", rito "word", vito "name"|
|6||ma-||matiko "countries", marito "words", mavito "names"|
|7||xi-||Xikwembu "God", xilo "thing", xitulu "chair"|
|8||swi-||Swikwembu "gods", swilo "things", switulu "chairs"|
|9||yi(n)-, (n)-||yindlu "house", mbyana "dog", homu "cow"|
|10||tiyi(n), ti(n)-||tiyindlu "houses", timbyana "dogs", tihomu "cows"|
|11||ri-||rihlaya "jaw", rivambu "rib", rintiho "finger"|
|14||vu-||vutomi "life", vumunhu "humanness", vululami "righteousness"|
|15||ku-||ku tshembha "to trust", ku dya "to eat", ku biha "ugliness"|
|21||dyi-||dyimunhu "abnormally huge person", dyiyindlu "abnormally huge house"|
Personal pronouns in Tsonga are very similar to those of many other Bantu languages, with a few variations.
These may be classified as first person (the speaker), second person (the one spoken to), and third person (the one spoken about). They are also classified by grammatical number, i.e., singular and plural. There is no distinction between subject and object.
|1st sg.||2nd sg.||3rd sg.||1st pl.||2nd pl.||3rd pl.|
|Agreement morpheme||ndzi, ndza||u, wa||u, wa||hi, ha||mi, ma||va|
|Example sentences||Mina ndzi vona huku. ("I see a chicken.")
Mina ndza yi vona huku. ("I see it--the chicken.")
|Wena u vona huku. ("You see a chicken.")
Wena wa yi vona huku. ("You see it--the chicken.")
|Yena u vona huku. ("He/she sees a chicken.")
Yena wa yi vona huku. ("He/she sees it--the chicken.")
|Hina hi vona huku. ("We see a chicken.")
Hina ha yi vona huku. ("We see it--the chicken.")
|N'wina mi vona huku. ("You see a chicken.")
N'wina ma yi vona huku. ("You see it--the chicken.")
|Vona va vona huku. ("They see a chicken.")|
Vona va yi vona huku. ("They see it--the chicken.")
The vocabulary of Xitsonga is essentially similar not only to most South African languages but also other Eastern Bantu languages, for example, Kiswahili.
|Khume (na) n'we / Khumen'we||eleven|
|Khume (na) mbirhi / Khumembirhi||twelve|
|Khume (na) nharhu / Khumenharhu||thirteen|
|Makhume mambirhi / Makumembirhi||twenty|
|Makhume manharhu / Makumenharhu||thirty|
|Mune wa makhume / Makumemune||forty|
|Ntlhanu wa makhume / Makumentlhanu||fifty|
Xitsonga, like many other African languages, have been influenced by various European colonial languages. Xitsonga includes words borrowed from English, Afrikaans, and Portuguese. Also, due to the assimilation of the Shangaan nation, Xitsonga has taken some words from Nguni languages.
Words borrowed from English
Words borrowed from Afrikaans
Words borrowed from other Nguni languages:
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 meant to distinguish the language somewhat.
An example of this is the letter "x" taken from Portuguese orthography, which is pronounced /?/. Therefore, the following words, [?u?a], [?ikolo], [?ilo], are written in Tsonga as -xuxa, xikolo, and xilo.
Other spelling differences include the letter "c", which is pronounced /t/. However, where the emphasis of a word is on the following vowel the letter is hardened by adding "h" this the Tsonga word -chava (fear)
A sound equivalent to the Welsh "ll" (/?/) is written "hl" in Tsonga, e.g. -hlangana (meet), -hlasela (attack), -hleka (laugh)
A whistling sound common in the language is written "sw" or "sv" in Zimbabwean ChiShona. This sound actually belongs to the "x-sw" class within the language. E.g.:
Another whistling sound is spelled "dy" but has no English equivalent, the closest being the "dr" sound in the English word "drive"
Xitsonga has been standardised as a written language. However, there are many dialects within the language that may not pronounce words as written. For example, the Tsonga bible uses the word "byela" (tell), pronounced bwe-la, however a large group of speakers would say "dzvela" instead.
The Lord's Prayer as written in the Xitsonga Bible (Bibele)
Tata wa hina la nge matilweni,
vito ra wena a ri hlawuriwe;
a ku te ku fuma ka wena;
ku rhandza ka wena a ku endliwe misaveni;
tani hi loko ku endliwa matilweni;
u hi nyika namuntlha vuswa bya hina
bya siku rin'wana ni rin'wana;
u hi rivalela swidyoho swa hina,
tani hi loko na hina hi rivalela lava hi dyohelaka;
u nga hi yisi emiringweni
kambe u hi ponisa eka Lowo biha,
hikuva ku fuma, ni matimba, ni ku twala i swa wena
hi masiku ni masiku.
The sintu writing system, Isibheqe Sohlamvu/Ditema tsa Dinoko, also known technically in Xitsonga as Xiyinhlanharhu xa Mipfawulo, is used for all Xitsonga varieties. The class 7/8 noun pairs above are represented as follows:
Like many other languages, Xitsonga has many proverbs; these appear in different classes. They appear in a group of animals, trees and people.
|N'wana wa mfenhe a nga tsandziwi hi rhavi||The child of baboon does not fail a branch||A wiseman's child can do anything.|
|U nga teki mali u bohela enengeni wa mpfuvu||Do not tie money in the leg of hippopotamus||Do not lend your money to people who do not pay back.|
|U nga dlayi nyoka u yi ndzuluta, ta micele ta ku vona||Do not kill a snake and swing it, the ones inside the holes are watching you||Do not do unnecessary bad things to someone, other people are watching you.|
|Kuwa ro tshwuka ri na xivungu endzeni.||A fig fruit which is pink, it has a worm inside.||Most of very beautiful women they have bad habits.|
|N'wana wa nyoka i nyoka.||The child of snake is a snake.||A child of a bad person, might be a very bad person.|
|Ndlopfu a yi fi hi rivambu rin'we||An elephant does not die of one (broken) rib||When in trouble, a man should try all efforts to find a solution.|
|Mbuti ya xihaha a yi tswaleli entlhambini||A secretive goat does not give birth in a midst.||Keep a secret do not say it where there are many people|
|Matimba ya ngwenya i mati||The strength of crocodile is water.||A man has power when he is supported by his people|
|N'hwarimbirhi yin'we yi ta tshwa nkanga||If one tries to do more than one thing at the same time, one might not prosper.|
|N'wana wo ka a nga rili u ta fela a dzobyeni||A child who does not cry will die unnoticed at the back of his mother.||If you do not raise your voice (in a form of a complaint), you will not be heard.|
|Mbuti yi dya laha yi nga bohiwa kona||A goat eats where it is tied.||A person must use properties of a place where he is working.|
|Ku tlula ka mhala ku letela n'wana wa le ndzeni||The way an impala jumps, it influences its unborn child.||Whatever bad things a mother does, her daughter will also do.|
|I malebvu ya nghala.||It is a lion's beard.||A thing may not be as scary as it looks.|
|Nomu a wu taleriwi hi nambu||A mouth can cross any river.||A mouth can say all words of promises.|
|Mavoko ya munhu a ma mili nhova/byanyi||Grass cannot grow on a human being's hands.||You must work hard (in every possible way) to succeed.|
|Xandla famba, xandla vuya.||Let the hand go and let the hand come back.||A giving hand is a receiving hand.|
|Humba yi olele nkuma||The snail has collected ashes||A person has died|
|Mbyana loko yi lava ku ku luma ya n'wayitela.||A dog smiles when it intends to bite something.||A person can do (or intend to do) bad things to you, while he is smiling.|
|Ku hiwa hi Thomo ku suka e palamendhe ya le tilweni.||To be given by Thomo (king's name) from heavenly parliament.||To be blessed by God.|
|Vana va munhu va tsemelana nhloko ya njiya.||Siblings are sharing the head of locust.||Siblings must share good things.|
|Mhunti yo tlulatlula Mangulwe u ta yi khoma.||An antelope which is jumping around next to Mangulwe (dog's name), he will catch it.||Any girl who has been seen by this boy, she will accept his proposal (used by a boy when he is in love with a girl).|
|Tolo a nga ha vuyi.||Yesterday will not come back.||Wishing to bring interesting old things of old days to nowadays.|
|Nghala yi vomba exihlahleni.||A lion roars in the bush.||A warrior is seen in a war.|
|Ku hundza muti ri xile||To pass a home during the day||To be stupid|
|Tinghala timbirhi ta chavana.||Two lions fear each other.||Two powerful nations fear each other.|
|Timpfuvu timbirhi a ti tshami xidziveni xin'we.||Two hippos cannot stay in the same deep water.||Enemies cannot stay in the same place.|
|Vuhosi a byi peli nambu.||Chiefdom does not cross the river.||Chiefdom stays in the same family, cannot be passed to other families.|
|A ndzi ku hi laha ku nga na mpfula ku sala ndzhongo.||I thought is where the rain has poured and left fertile soil.||I thought it was good things.|
|I matutu vana va ntavasi||It is plenty.|
|Ku tshwa nomo||To have a burnt mouth||Referring to someone who constantly lies, e.g. Jephrey Cuma u tshwe nomo.|
|N'wana u tseme mubya||A disobedient child|
|Ximitantsengele xi tshemba nkolo||He who swallows a large stone has confidence in the size of his throat.||When you start something you must have power (courage) to complete it.|
|Mutlhontlhi wa tinyarhi ti vuya hi yena||The one who challenges buffaloes they will chase him.||He who provokes other people, will face the consequences.|
|Loko u tsundzuka mhelembe khandziya ensinyeni||When you think of rhino, climb a tree.||When you think of something, act immediately.|
|Ku ba ndlopfu hi xibakele||To hit an elephant with a fist||To make a very slight impression.|
|Ku banana hi rhambu ra mfenhe||To hit each other with a baboon's bone||To exchange gifts with relatives only.|
|Ku banana hi rhanga ro hisa||To hit each other with a hot 'pumpkin'||To accuse each other.|
|U nga hlawuli nkuku wa mhangele||One must not choose the male of the guinea-fowl (similar to "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched").||This proverb is said to a young husband who might be tempted to prepare something for their babies before their birth, since you do not know if the baby is a male or female.|
|Tinhlanga ta le ndzhaku ti tiviwa hi mutlhaveri wa tona.||The tattooing marks made on the back are known by the tattooer (not by the tattooed)||You do not know what may happen when you have turned your back.|
|Xihlovo a xi dungiwi loko u heta ku nwa mati||Do not close the well after having drunk.||Do not mess up things after using them, you might need them tomorrow.|
|U nga sahi nsinya hi vuxika, u ta tshwa hi mumu hi malanga||Do not cut the tree in winter, you will burn by sun in summer.||Do not mess up things when you do not need them, you will suffer when you need them.|
|Mhunti yi biwa ya ha ri na mahika||An antelope is killed while is sighing||A problem must be solved immediately.|
|Xirhami xi vuyisa na n'wana evukatini||Chillness causes a girl to come back to her parents' house from her husband's house.||It is very cold.|