Monday, June 23, 2014

Language Profile: Tsonga

This week we're looking at Tsonga, a member of the Bantu language family that includes Xhosa and Zulu. It is spoken by members of the Tsonga ethnic group, primarily in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.

Tsonga is one of the many official languages of South Africa and Zimbabwe, though in the latter country it is known as "Shangani" instead of Tsonga. There are approximately 2.3 million Tsonga speakers in South Africa and another 1.5 million in Mozambique, whose sole official language is Portuguese. There are also 100,000 speakers of the language in Zimbabwe and 25,000 in Swaziland.

Mount Murresse in Mozambique
The language also has some fascinating phonological characteristics that can be found in other African languages. It contains breathy voiced consonants, in which the vocal cords vibrate further apart, producing a unique sound since more air than normal passes between them. It also features whistled sibilants like Shona, another Bantu language.

Over the years, it has been lexically influenced by several European languages, especially English, Afrikaans, and Portuguese, in addition to borrowing words from other regional languages such as Zulu. Loanwords include the word sokisi from English "socks", and tafula from the Afrikaans term "tafel", meaning "table".

Tsonga is written using a Latin-based alphabet. Interesting characteristics include its use of "x" as in Portuguese, in which it is pronounced /ʃ/ like "sh" in English.