Sepedi vs Sesotho sa Leboa vs Northern Sotho

Within the linguistic community there is an ongoing debate as to the correct way to refer to the language generally referred to as Northern Sotho in English. Some speakers prefer the term Sepedi, since this is the dialect on which the standard written language is mainly based. This is also the name used in the Constitution to refer to this language. 

Other speakers however, prefer the more inclusive term Sesotho sa Leboa, arguing that the standard language serves all the other dialects as well, and that one dialect should not be elevated to a status higher than that of other dialects. Then there is the issue of how to refer to this language when speaking or writing in English. 

Again, some speakers prefer the term Sepedi to be used in English, even though strictly speaking, Sepedi is not an English word. One would not say: Bana ba ka ba ruta English ka sekolong ‘My children learn English in school’, but rather Bana ba ka ba ruta  Sekgowa ka sekolong, using the Northern Sotho term for English. In the same way, when speaking or writing English, one should use the English term. 

These issues have however not been resolved, and continue to generate vigorous and sometimes emotional debates.


About the author: 

Prof Elsabé Taljard is an Associate Professor in the Department of African Languages, Faculty of the Humanities, at the University of Pretoria. She is a member of the board of AFRILEX, the African Association for Lexicography. Prof Taljard developed a part-of-speech tagger for Northern Sotho in collaboration with colleagues from the UP and the Institut fûr Maschinelle Sprachverarbeitung, Stuttgart. Prof Taljard is a Northern Sotho Language Champion for the Oxford Global Languages initiative.

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