Date of completion 05/12/2000 (Month Day Year)

Respondent's details
Name:  Dyobyana Isaac
Surname: Mathumba

Male  X
Female []

Institution belonged to: National Language Service Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology
Address: Private Bag X195 Pretoria, 0001, South Africa
Telephone: 27 12 337 8366
Fax:  27 12 324 2119
E-Mail: td16@dacst5.pwv.gov.za

Details of language

Glotonym or name of language on which you are providing data:
Autoglotonym (name given to the language by native speakers): Xitsonga
Heteroglotonym (name given by the non-native community to the language): Tsonga

What language group does the language belong to?
Family: Bantu Language Family
Group:  South Eastern Bantu
Subgroup: No subgroup

What type of language is it?
Creole []
Pidgin []
None of the above. It is a full-fledged language.

  1. Does this language have other varieties? If so, what are these?

The Tsonga people have historically had a multiplicity of culturally different tribal groups who speak the Xitsonga language. Hence the language has a number of dialects, for example, Xinhlanganu.

  1. Does this language exist in a written form?

Yes, the language exists in written form.

  1. Is there standardisation of the language?

The language has been standardised.

  1. Do you consider yourself a member of this linguistic community? If so, why?

Yes. Both the researcher’s parents spoke Xinhlanganu, which he also speaks. Xinhlanganu is one of the dialects of Xitsonga.

  1. Where is this language spoken? What are its geographical boundaries?

Xitsonga is spoken in Southern Mozambique, the Northern Province of the Republic of South Africa and South Eastern Zimbabwe.

  1. Have these geographical boundaries changed over the years? If so, how have they altered?

Yes, the boundaries have altered on account of suppression and wars, hence the speakers of the language are found in the Republic of South Africa as well.

  1. What is the physical terrain of this area like?

Mozambique is flat, Zimbabwe is flat and thickly vegetated and the RSA is a combination of flatland and mountainous terrain.

  1. Are any other languages spoken within the same territory? If so, what are these?

Yes, Northern Sotho, Venda, Swati, Zulu and Pai are spoken in the same territory. English and Afrikaans are also spoken in the South African territory.

  1. Could you enclose a sketch or indicate the area in which the language is spoken? (if you wish, you can draw a sketch in the space on the next page)

See Appendix.

  1. What State(s) / country (ies) do/es the territory/ies where the language is spoken belong to?

Mozambique, the Republic of South Africa and Zimbabwe.

  1. What is the total number of inhabitants (whether or not they speak this language) of this territory?

In the following questions numbers only refer to the South African territory of Xitsonga. Xitsonga speakers are found in all nine provinces of South Africa, but the concentrations vary from 1 102 472 in the Northern Province (62,8%) and 382 463 in Gauteng (21,8%) to only 87 speakers in the Northern Cape. The total number of inhabitants of South Africa is 40 583 573. The total number of inhabitants of the mentioned provinces are:
Northern Province:  4 929 368
Gauteng:   7 348 423

Census in Brief, table 2.7, Report No: 03-01-11 (1996)

  1. How many of the inhabitants understand, speak, read or write this language?

The total number of Xitsonga first home language is 1 756 105. 175 245 people have indicated in the Census of 1996 that they use Xitsonga as a second home language. Therefore a total of at least 1 931 350 South Africans would be able to understand and speak Xitsonga.
An estimate for the number of inhabitants that can write Xitsonga can be based upon the assumption that adult literate speakers would be able to write Xitsonga. Approximately 54% of the African population is older than 20. Of these 75,7% has at least had some primary schooling. This would imply that at most 75,7%*(54% * 1 931 350) = 782 196 persons are able to write Xitsonga. The actual figure is probably substantially smaller, because few schools offer Xitsonga as subject, and speakers would learn to write another African language at school.

Census in brief (1996), tables 2.19 and 2.26

Use this space to draw a map or sketch of the territory where this language is spoken.
See Appendix.

  1. How many of the speakers are monolingual (only use this language)?

It is not known how many Xitsonga speakers only use this language. The figure will probably correlate with the youngest and oldest age groups, low educational levels and living in remote rural areas.

  1. How many of the speakers are bilingual (use this and another language)? What other language(s) do they speak?

It is well known that speakers of the minority languages, Xitsonga and Tshivenda, are highly multilingual. Nearly 100% of adult Xitsonga speakers would be able to and actually use at least one of the other African languages of the relevant province. The languages with the highest percentages in the Northern Province and Gauteng are Sepedi (52,7%) and Venda (15,5%), and Zulu (21,5%) and Sesotho (13,1%) respectively.

  1. How many of the speakers are multilingual (speak this and more than one other language)? What other languages do they speak?

Similarly, the majority of Xitsonga speaking adults in the Northern Province can speak Tsonga, another African language and either English or Afrikaans. Knowledge of English and Afrikaans would correlate with at least some primary schooling and living in urban areas, although it is expected that farm workers (121 757 in the Northern Province) would also have a speaking knowledge of English and/or Afrikaans. No exact numbers are known, but it can be expected that percentages would approximate 100% in the urban areas of Gauteng.

Census in Brief (1996)

  1. Are speakers of this language dispersed throughout the territory, or are they concentrated in specific population centres?

Xitsonga speakers are found in all 9 provinces of the RSA, but they are concentrated in the Northern Province (62,8%) and Gauteng (21,8%).

  1. How has the number of speakers of this language evolved over time (increased, decreased or remained stable)?

The number of speakers has increased as the population increased.

  1. Is the language passed down from generation to generation? If not, why not? What language is replacing it?

Yes, it is passed down from generation to generation. As a result there is no language replacing it.

  1. Could you indicate how often the members of each generation use the language with other generations (old people with old people, young people with old people, etc) in their informal contacts (in the street, at home, in leisure time)?

This aspect has not been researched. It is estimated that the frequency would be 5 for interactions between elderly people and adults. For the interaction between elderly and adults and young people and children the frequency would drop to 4. In the interaction between young people and children the frequency would further drop to 3.

  1. Do the speakers of other languages speak this language? In what circumstances?

There are some speakers of other languages speak this language, especially those who stay in the territory of the linguistic community, those who trade with linguistic community and those who are involved in intermarriage with the linguistic community. Exact numbers are not known.

  1. Is there any historical, political or economic factor which has affected the situation of this linguistic community?

The policy of separate development affected the situation of this linguistic community. Suppression and wars made it spread to the RSA from Mozambique.

  1. Has any other factor directly influenced the growth or threatened the future of the language (migration, temporary labour, deportations, wars…)?

The apartheid government undermined the development of the African languages. The government did not fund the development of Xitsonga as it did with Afrikaans and English. Xitsonga was not used as one of the official languages. Cf. also the comment in the Venda questionnaire that "the migration of rural men to urban areas also threatened the future of the language because while in urban areas these people felt inferior to communicate in the language."

  1. Is the language currently threatened? If so, what is the cause?

Yes. While other African languages are promoted in the media such as TV and newspapers, Xitsonga and Tshivenda are marginalised. There is also little use of the language either as medium of instruction at schools or as subject. According to statistics from the Department of Education for 1997, only 1% of schools uses Xitsonga in some form as medium of instruction. 23 012 Matric candidates had Xitsonga as First language subject in 1999; only 5 took it as an additional language subject. The language is also threatened by negative attitudes of some mother-tongue speakers.

  1. Is the community which speaks this language in danger? If so, what is the cause?


  1. Is there any internal migration (movement of the population within the territory)? Is there any external migration (movement out of the territory to others)? If so, what is the cause?

Yes, there is internal migration. Many people are moving form rural areas to urban areas because the Group Areas Act that used to restrict their movement has been abolished. External migration from Mozambique occurs because of wars in the past as well as poverty at present.

  1. What is the main economic activity of this community?

The main economic activity of this linguistic community is agriculture, selling of labour on the job market and taking part in professional activities of the learned.

  1. What is the influence of religion on this community?

Many have been converted to the Christian faith but there are those who exercise a dual loyalty to Christianity and traditional religion.

  1. Does the language have any official status (official, joint-official language, acceptance…)?

The language is one of the eleven official languages in South Africa. It is mostly used as an official language in the Northern Province where the majority of Xitsonga people stay.

  1. Is the language in contact with the administration? Indicate whether its use in the administration is in spoken and/or written form.

Yes, the language is in contact with the administration in the Northern Province, both in the spoken and written forms.

  1. Is this language used in education (whether as the teaching medium or as a subject of study)? Indicate whether there is spoken and/or written use of the language in elementary and higher education.

Yes, it is used as medium of instruction and also taught as a subject. The number of Matric candidates that take Xitsonga as a first language subject has dropped with more than 2000 from 1998 to 1999. Both the spoken and written forms of the language are used in elementary and higher education: as medium of instruction in elementary education and only as a subject in higher education.

  1. Is this language used in the media (radio, newspapers and television…)?

It is used on the radio, and only very marginally on TV (where it is accorded an insignificant role). It is not used in newspapers.

  1. Is this language used in religious services and ceremonies? Indicate whether there is spoken or written use of the language in religious services and ceremonies.

Yes, it is used in both its spoken and written forms in religious services and ceremonies.

  1. Is the language used in business and labour relations? Indicate whether the use is spoken and/or written.

Yes, it is used in business and labour relations, but predominantly in its spoken form.

  1. Are there any other areas in which this language is used in its written form?

The other area where the language is used in its written form is in the south eastern part of Mozambique.

  1. Is there any organisation or body responsible for linguistic policy and planning with respect to this language? What kind of activities does this perform?

The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology is responsible for linguistic planning of the language. The department does research on how and where the language should be used in the country. The former Tsonga Language Board (now incorporated in the Pan South African Language Board) was involved with the orthography, terminology and the screening of literary books in the language. Provincial Language Committees have been formed in the Provinces, but are not yet fully functional. The Tsonga Language Unit and Language Body will be responsible for the linguistic policy and planning, including matters pertaining to orthography and screening literary works, when it is functional.

  1. Is there any kind of cultural or linguistic organisation or body which promotes the knowledge and/or use of the language? What kind of activities does this perform?

The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology are involved with translations of literary material from other languages to Xitsonga, and terminology development. The Pan South African Language Board is involved in dictionary making in Xitsonga. The African Association for Lexicography and the African Languages Association of Southern Africa are involved with research on the development of the language.

  1. Does the language have a literary tradition? If so, please give some information about this literary tradition.

Yes, it has. Xitsonga was reduced to writing in 1883 and the first work of creative writing, a novel, was published in 1938. Since then many novels, short stories, plays and anthologies of poems have been produced. The first novel Sasavone by DC Marivate was published in 1938. Other prominent writers include the poet EM Nkondo (Emahosi), the novelist TH Khosa (Madyisambitsi), who also published a few plays, and the novelist MJ Maluleke (Hi ya kwihi).

  1. What is the attitude of the majority of the members of this community towards the knowledge and use of this language?

The attitude of the majority of the members of this community is positive and eager to support the development of the language in all spheres.

  1. What is the attitude of the majority of the members of the neighbouring communities towards the knowledge and use of the language?

The language is one of the minority languages in South Africa. Therefore it is not regarded as an important language to learn and to speak by the members of the neighbouring communities.

  1. PLEASE ADD ANY OTHER DETAILS REGARDING THE SITUATION OF THE LANGUAGE WHICH YOU CONSIDER OF INTEREST. At the same time, we would be grateful if you could send us any statistics, reports, assignment or research that might help us to understand the situation of this language. It would also be very helpful if you could provide references of the sources consulted and the addresses of any individuals or bodies that may be able to offer further data about this language.


1954 The Southern Bantu Languages. London: OUP.

1993 A comparative study of selected phonetic, phonological and lexical aspects of some major dialects of Tsonga in the Republic of South Africa, and their impact on the standard language. Unpublished Doctoral thesis. Pretoria: University of South Africa.