Go Tlhotlhomisa Setswana: Noun Classes

First in the series Go Tlhotlhomisa Setswana (Exploring Setswana)

South Africa recognizes eleven official languages, nine of which fall into the Bantu language family, a group of over five hundred languages spoken widely across sub-Saharan Africa. This linguistic trail of crumbs marks one of the greatest human migrations ever undertaken: the expansion of Bantu pastoralists – herdsmen of cattle, cultivators of grains, and workers of iron – that began some three thousand years ago from western equatorial Africa and spread east across Africa’s tropical savanna and south to the grasslands and bushveld of contemporary South Africa.

These languages demonstrate remarkable consistencies with one another. The word “Bantu” or some variation thereof simply connotes people in these various languages: Ubuntu in isiZulu, Batho in Setswana. The phrase used to threaten others in Kikongo – o ra bona (you will see) – bears a strong resemblance to the same phrase in Setswana – o tla bona (though the phrase doesn’t have the same metaphorical meaning in Setswana, as far as I am aware).

Today, speakers of Bantu languages number in the hundreds of millions. Despite their prevalence in hundreds of beautiful and fascinating cultures (and incidentally, one of the fastest-growing emerging markets), Bantu languages remain little understood outside Africa. In the interest of promoting these languages, I will be publishing a series of articles about my adopted language, Setswana. My objective is not to teach anyone Setswana, but rather to build an appreciation amongst my readers for the complexity and logic this beautiful (and often loud) language.

A certain group of related languages within the Bantu family, the Sotho-Tswana languages, form the dominant language group across a wide swath of Botswana, Lesotho, and western and northern South Africa, including Reed Holler, where I live. Though my village includes significant numbers of people who speak a variety of Bantu languages – xiTsonga, Sepedi, isiZulu, TshiVenda and others – a certain Sotho language called Setswana is the primary language spoken here.

The structure of all Bantu languages is built around noun classes, comparable to gendered nouns in the Romance and Germanic languages, and their related concords, single words that stand in as a combined pronoun and helping verb. Setswana is no different. While the Romance and German languages have at most two or three genders – feminine, masculine, and neuter – Setswana has eleven noun classes, each with its own plural constructions and sets of concords, demonstratives, possessives, and adjectival prefixes. That’s right, eleven, each determined by the noun’s prefix. Interestingly, however, Setswana doesn’t distinguish between male and female.

For example, let’s compare the Setswana words for three of my favorite words: woman (mosadi), bojalwa (beer), and school (sekolo). The mo- prefix of mosadi also tells us that it falls in class one, for people; the bo- prefix of bojalwa puts it in class seven, one of the classes for things; the se- prefix of sekolo tells us that sekolo falls in class four, another of the classes for things. These prefixes tell what to attach to the word to make its grammar work.

Class one nouns like mosadi take the concord o, a sort of combined helping verb and pronoun.

Mosadi o montle. (While this is often translated, “The woman is beautiful,” it is
perhaps better understood as “The woman, she is beautiful.”)

Class seven nouns like bojalwa take the concord bo:

Bojalwa bo monate. (“The beer, it is delicious.”)

Finally, class four nouns like sekolo take the concord se, again a combined helping verb and pronoun:

Sekolo se fetsa (“School is finishing,” or “School, it is finishing.”)

Because the noun’s concorn implies the noun at hand, Setswana-speakers will frequently drop noun altogether. the This feature of Setswana allows speakers to speak very quickly, and they do. Setswana is a quick, staccato language:

O montle. (“[The woman,] she is beautiful.”)

Bo monate. (“[The beer,] it is delicious.”)

Se fetsa (“[School,] it is finishing.”)

The noun class also determines the plural. In class one nouns the ba- prefix replaces the mo- prefix in the plural: mosadi (woman) becomes basadi (women). Meanwhile, in class seven nouns the prefix ma- replaces bo- in class seven nouns: bojalwa (beer) becomes majalwa (types of beers). Finally, in class four nouns the prefix di- replaces the se- prefix: sekolo (school) becomes dikolo (schools).

Similarly, the noun class determines their demonstrative:

Mosadi o/mosadi ole (“This woman/that woman”)

Bojalwa boo/bojalwa bole (“This beer/that beer”)

Sekolo se/sekolo sele (“This school/that school”).

The noun class also determines the possessive article:

Mosadi wa ka (“My woman”)

Bojalwa bo ka (“My beer”)

Sekolo sa ka (“My school”)

It looks complicated until you realize that these lexical add-ons are basically variations on the noun’s concord. This can make for some, ahem, repetitive syntax. For example: bana bao ba ba rata bana bale ba tshameka (these children love them, those children playing).

Future installments in this series will include: why a Tswana person can turn but a Tswana chair cannot; why speakers of Setswana say “borada” instead of “brother”; why “o waka streta, gape o tana lefta” (you walk straight, then turn left”) is grammatically perfect Setswana; why a Tswana man must be careful not to soil himself when he gets married (hint: Setswana is a tonal language); and how I got my Tswana name, Thabo.

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3 responses to “Go Tlhotlhomisa Setswana: Noun Classes

  1. I generally dislike grammar rules… it’s all a little too mathy for me… but this is fascinating! also, 11 is too many noun classes.

    • Says the English-major/copy-editor/blogger-extraordinaire.

      11 is too many. Apparently some of the languages in the in the source region of the Bantu languages have 30 or something.

  2. I’m really worried that writers and historians categorise Setswana under Sesotho, We Batswana find it very offensive to how a small place like Lesotho can categorise a country as big as Botswana’s language, we do not mind being associated with Bapedi and Basotho, we are just offended that our Language is categorised under Sesotho, as Bafokeng, Bapedi, Bakwena,Bakgatlha and Basotho were a break away group from Batswana, now we are classed under one of them, namely Basotho, who further broke down into Bataung and Bakubung, I urge all writers to refrain from doing that.

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