Phuthi language

Phuthi is a Nguni Bantu language spoken in southern Lesotho and areas in South Africa adjacent to the same border. The closest substantial living relative of Phuthi is Swati, spoken in Swaziland and the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. Although there is no contemporary sociocultural or political contact, Phuthi is linguistically part of a historic dialect continuum with Swati. Phuthi is heavily influenced by the surrounding Sesotho and Xhosa languages, but retains a distinct core of lexicon and grammar not found in either Xhosa or Sesotho, and found only partly in Swati to the north.
The documentary origins of Phuthi can be traced to Bourquin, but in other oblique references nearly 200 years from the present. Until recently, the language has been very poorly documented with respect to its linguistic properties. The only significant earlier study is Godfrey Mzamane.

Geography and demography

It has been estimated that around 20,000 people in South Africa and Lesotho use Phuthi as their home language, but the actual figures could be much higher. No census data on Phuthi-speakers is available from either South Africa or Lesotho. The language is certainly endangered.
Phuthi is spoken in dozens of scattered communities in the border areas between where the far northern Eastern Cape meets Lesotho: from Herschel northwards and eastwards, and in the Matatiele area of the northeastern Transkei; and throughout southern Lesotho, from Quthing in the southwest, through regions south and east of Mount Moorosi, to mountain villages west and north of Qacha.
Within Phuthi, there are at least two dialect areas, based on linguistic criteria: Mpapa/Daliwe vs. all other areas. This taxonomy is based on a single phonological criterion. Mpapa and Daliwe are villages in southern Lesotho, southeast of Mount Moorosi, on the dust road leading to Tosing, then on to Mafura, and finally Mpapa/Daliwe. Other Phuthi-speaking areas include Makoloane and Mosuoe , near Quthing, in south-western Lesotho; Seqoto ; Makoae further to the east; and a number of villages north and west of Qacha's Nek.. Phuthi-speaking diaspora areas include the far northern Transkei villages of Gcina and Mfingci .

Political history

The most famous Phuthi leader in the historical record was the powerful chief, Moorosi. It seems that approximately the land south of the Orange River in present-day Lesotho was Phuthi-speaking during the time of the greatest historical figure in the history of the Basotho people, Moshoeshoe I – just seven years older than Moorosi—whose authority in the 1830s, however, was far from covering the present-day territory of Lesotho. Until 1820, there were only "a few isolated villages of Basotho, and a small clan of Baphuti, over which Moshoeshoe exercised ill-defined sovereignty". Most Phuthis, with Moorosi, were far to the south of Thaba Bosiu, south of the Orange River, well out of Moshoeshoe's way.
Moorosi was to die in unclear circumstances on Mount Moorosi in 1879, after a protracted nine-month siege by the British, Boer and Basotho forces. This siege is often referred to as "Moorosi's Rebellion". The issue that triggered the siege was alleged livestock theft in the Herschel area. In the aftermath of the siege, Phuthi people dispersed widely over what is contemporary southern Lesotho and the northern Transkei region, to escape capture by the colonial powers. It is for this reason, it has been hypothesised, that Phuthi villages.
After the siege of "Moorosi's rebellion", many Phuthi people were captured, and forced into building the bridge at Aliwal North that crosses the Senqu. Prior to 1879, it seems Moorosi had been regarded in some ways as a very threatening competitor to Chief Moshoeshoe I. Even though currently represented to a nominal extent in the Lesotho government in Maseru, subsequent to the 1879 uprising the Phuthi people essentially fade from modern Lesotho and Eastern Cape history.


Phuthi is a Bantu language, clearly within the southeastern Zone S. But within southern Africa Phuthi is viewed ambivalently as being either a Nguni or a Sotho–Tswana language, given the very high level of hybridity displayed in all subsystems of the grammar.
But Phuthi is genetically—along with Zulu, Hlubi, Xhosa, northern and southern Ndebele, and Swati—certainly a Nguni language. Thus, it should be numbered in the S.40 group within Zone S, following Guthrie's classification. Further, given the range of lexical, phonological and even low-level phonetic effects that appear to be shared almost exclusively with Swati, Phuthi can be classified uncontroversially as a Tekela Nguni language, that is, in the subset of Nguni that includes Swati, some versions of Southern Ndebele, and the Eastern Cape remnant languages, Bhaca and Hlubi.
The contemporary lexicon and morphology of Phuthi confirms the standard claim that Phuthi displays very heavy contact and levelling effects from its long cohabitation with Sesotho. There is, for example, a very high level of 'lexical doublets' for many items, for many speakers, e.g. -ciga "think", and -nakana "think". Phuthi noun class prefixes are nearly all of the shape CV-.
There are also regional effects: the Mpapa Phuthi dialect leans much more heavily towards Sesotho lexicon and morphology, whereas the Sigxodo dialect leans more towards Xhosa lexicon and morphology.


Sustained field work by Simon Donnelly in 1994/1995 among speech communities in Sigxodo and Mpapa resulted in the discovery of a surprisingly wide range of phonological and morphological phenomena, aspects of which are unique to Phuthi.
The following phoneme inventory is found in Phuthi:


Contrary to other Nguni languages, Phuthi has a 9-vowel system with four different heights. It has acquired a new series of "superclose" vowels and from Sotho, while the inherited Nguni high vowels are reflected as and.

Vowel harmony

Two vowel harmony patterns propagate in opposite directions: perseverative superclose vowel height harmony ; and anticipatory ATR/RTR tenseness harmony, invoking mid vowels . In the first, 'supercloseness'—also a Sesotho vocalic property—in root-final position triggers suffix vowels of the same supercloseness value. In the second, all mid vowels uninterruptedly adjacent to the right edge of a phonological word are lax ; all other mid vowels are tense.

Vowel imbrication

is the vowel harmony-like morphophonological phenomenon found in many Bantu languages. Vowel imbrication in two-syllable verb roots is effectively fully productive in Phuthi, that is, -CaC-a verb stems become -CeC-e in the perfective aspect, e.g. -tfwatsha 'carry on the head' → -tfwetshe 'be carrying on the head', -mabha 'catch, hold' → -mebhe 'be holding'..

Morphological use of vowel height

The 'supercloseness' property also active in the first vowel harmony type is active in at least one paradigm of the Phuthi morphological system. A morphological use for a vocalic property does not appear to be recorded elsewhere for a Bantu language.


  1. The plain voiceless stops and affricates are realised phonetically as ejectives,,,, .
  2. The dental affricates and have allophones with a labialised secondary articulation and when followed by a rounded vowel.
  3. The consonants marked with a diaeresis are depressor consonants, which have an effect on the tone of their syllable.
  4. The phonemes,,,,,, and occur mostly in loanwords from Sotho, not in inherited vocabulary. occurs natively only in affixes; its occurrence in roots is also loaned from Sotho.

    Click consonants

Phuthi has a system of click consonants, typical for nearly all Nguni, at the three common articulation points: dental, alveolar, and lateral. But the range of manners and phonations, or click 'accompaniments', is relatively impoverished, with only four: tenuis c q x, aspirated ch qh xh, voiced gc gq gx, and nasal nc nq nx. Swati, by comparison, has clicks at only one place, but five manners and phonations. The reduced variety of clicks in Phuthi may be partly related to the nearly total absence of prenasalised consonants in Phuthi, assuming *nkx, *ngx would be analyzed as equivalent to prenasalized *ng, *nk.


Either of two surface tone distinctions, H or L, is possible for each syllable and falling. There is a subtype within the L tone category: when a syllable is 'depressed', the syllable is produced phonetically at a lower pitch. This system of tone depression is phonologically regular, but is highly complex, interacting extensively with the morphology. Phonologically, Phuthi is argued to display a three-way High/Low/toneless distinction. Like all Nguni languages, Phuthi also displays phonetically rising and falling syllables, always related to the position of a depressed syllabic nucleus.

Depressor consonants

In line with a number of southern Bantu languages, a significant subset of the consonants in Phuthi are 'depressors'. These consonants are so named because they have a consistent depression effect on the pitch of an immediately successive H tone. In addition, these consonants produce complex non-local phonological tone-depression effects. Swati and Phuthi have similar properties in this respect, except that the parameters of the Phuthi depression effects are significantly more complex than those documented thus far for Swati.

Tone/voice interaction

Significantly complex tone/voice interactions have been identified in Phuthi. This phenomenon results in what is analysed at one level as massive and sustained violations of locality requirements on a H tone domain arising from a single H tone source, e.g. surface configurations of the type HLH are possible where all H syllables emanate from a single underlying H source, given at least one L syllable being depressed. Such tone/voice configurations lead to grave problems for any theoretical phonology that seeks to be maximally constrained in its architecture and operations.
The last two phenomena are non-tonal suprasegmental properties which each take on an additional morphological function in Phuthi:

Morphological use of breathy voice/depression

The vocalic property breathy voice/depression is separated from the set of consonants that typically induce it, and is used grammatically in the morphological copulative – similar to the Swati copula – and elsewhere in the grammar too.

Phrases with tone-marking

Very simply, examples 3 to 11 contain typical Bantu object-noun/object-pronoun agreement.


A Phuthi orthography has not yet been standardised. Donnelly uses a proposed alphabet based uncontroversially on that of other Nguni and Sesotho languages:
There are two superclose vowels, also found in the Sesotho languages. In the Phuthi orthography they are indicated with a circumflex diacritic, thus:
The following Phuthi consonant and vowel graphs have the same values they receive in Xhosa, in Swati, and in Sesotho.
Symbols in parentheses are allophones of.
Most consonants can also occur with a secondary labial glide articulation, e.g. as, so also.
;clicks and click combinations
is dental; is palatal; is lateral.


The Phuthi noun consists of two essential parts: the prefix and the stem. Nouns can be grouped into noun classes according to prefix, which are numbered consecutively according to the pan-Bantu system established by Meinhof and modified by Doke. The following table gives an overview of Phuthi noun classes, arranged according to singular-plural pairs.
ClassDoke Number

Verbs use the following affixes for the subject and the object:
2nd sing.u--wu-