Original Research - Special Collection: Septuagint

‘The people divided by a common language’: The orthography of Sesotho in Lesotho, South Africa, and the implications for Bible translation

Tshokolo J. Makutoane
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 78, No 1 | a7605 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v78i1.7605 | © 2022 Tshokolo J. Makutoane | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 05 April 2022 | Published: 30 November 2022

About the author(s)

Tshokolo J. Makutoane, Department of Hebrew, Faculty of Humanities, University of Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa


The Basotho of Lesotho and South Africa speak the same language, namely Sesotho. However, the two countries do not use the same orthography when writing Sesotho. This orthographic representation and its variations pose a significant challenge when Bible translators translate it into Sesotho. It also presents difficulties to readers of the Bible in South Africa when they have to read the Bible written in Lesotho orthography for the first time or to Lesotho readers who encounter Sesotho written in South African orthography. The two orthographies are independent but complementary. The Lesotho orthography is older than the South African. It differs in the choice of letters and the marking of initial syllabic nasals and (to a much lesser extent) in written word division and the use of diacritics on vowels to distinguish some ambiguous spellings.

Contribution: This article provides a historical examination of the problem beginning with the first efforts by French missionaries to write the language in the 19th century, the separate but interrelated development of the two orthographies in Lesotho and South Africa and the current impasse concerning a unified orthography. The analysis will include an examination of the linguistic issues involved, the sociolinguistic topics (including politics, education and religion) and various possible scenarios for resolving the problem will be considered.


Sesotho; Southern Sotho; Lesotho; South Africa; orthography; Bible translation; missionaries.


Total abstract views: 1042
Total article views: 1308


Crossref Citations

1. Listening to the Other: Kuang’s Babel, Postcolonialism, and Bible Translation
Doug Liao
Journal of Translation  vol: 20  issue: 1  first page: 1  year: 2024  
doi: 10.54395/JOT-DL6PC