21 May 2004

Melumo Sesothong (Tone in Sesotho)

Sesotho is tonal, which means meaning can be influenced by differences in pitch within otherwise similar words or sounds. The simple-looking ke, for example, can have at least two meanings. Ke, whose vowel rhymes with we or he when they're subjects, is the pronoun I. We say, "Ke khathetse" (I'm tired), "Ke rata lipompong" (I like sweets). But Ke, whose vowel rhymes with be or see, means it is + person. We say, "Ke mang?" (Who is it?), "Ke 'na" (It's me).

Tone can be either inherent, semantic or meaning-inspired. Inherent in this case refers to the tone that each and every word has, even in toneless languages. The English word "butter" has a DAda tone, whereas "along" has a daDA tone. Similarly, 'mè (mother) is /m-MEH/, leka (try) is LEHka, and so on.

Semantic tones tell us what two otherwise indistinguishable words mean within a given context. "Ho bua" (to .... the meaning depends on the context and on where the accent is placed, doesn't it) can mean either "to speak" or "to slaughter and cut open an animal." The tone pattern is as follows: /ho-BUA/ is to talk and /ho-bua/ is to slaughter an animal.

And the meaning-inspired tone is useful when two phrases are similar. For example, the two questions O tsamaile joang? (how was your trip?) and O tsamaile joang? (how was his/her trip?) are obviously not the same. But it's hard to tell, until we hear the tone: /o-tsa-MAI-le-joang/ (How was your trip?) or /O-tsa-MAI-le-joang?/ (How was his/her trip?).

Sesotho is therefore not a very easy language to learn, unless the learner takes extra measures to assure adequate practice in both listening and speaking.

1 comment:

Michael Tyas said...

I may be wrong...but he, be, see and we all sound the same to a north american. I was quite confused. Love the site, I'm going to try and study it whenever I can. One day I'll know Sesotho and Afrikaans for real!