Sotho Nouns - Noun Prefix System


Noun Prefix System

Sesotho, like all other Bantu languages, uses a set of "noun classes" and each noun belongs to one of the classes. The noun class that a noun belongs to is indicated by a prefix.

Nouns are divided somewhat arbitrarily between these classes, although a few of them contain nouns which mostly fall into clear categories. For example, all class 1 nouns are humans and verbal agents, most class 1a nouns are proper names and kinship terms, etc.

The noun classes and their respective prefixes are as follows:

The Sesotho noun prefix system
Class Prefix Example(s) Notes
1. mo- motho person human nouns
2. ba- batho people
1a. ntate father mostly human nouns including nouns of kinship.
The bo- is high tone
2a. bo- bontate fathers
3. mo- monwana finger mostly non-human nouns
4. me- menwana fingers
5. le- letsatsi day/sun both human and non-human
6. ma- matsatsi days
7. se- sephiri secret human and non-human
8. di- diphiri secrets
9. - ntho thing miscellaneous
thapelo prayer
10. di- dintho things
dithapelo prayers
14. bo- bohobe bread abstract nouns belong here,
therefore most class 14 words have no plural
bobe ugliness
15. ho- ho tsamaya to go infinitives and gerunds belong here
16. fa- fatshe down this is the only word in this class
17. ho- hole far away
hosane tomorrow
18. mo- moraho behind
mose overseas/river-bank


  1. means that nasalization will occur to the following consonant.
  2. Many class 5 words in Sesotho come from the original Proto-Bantu *du- class 11, whose plural is class 10 *dîN-, which is why some class 5 nouns may have two distinct plurals: one in class 6, and one in class 10. However, the di- plural does not apply to all class 5 words, and when it does the meaning might be changed slightly (maleme (tongues), diteme (flattery)). For example, Setswana uses lorato for Sesotho lerato (love), as this class still exists in the language.
  3. Classes 16, 17, and 18 are the locative classes. They are no longer productive in Sesotho (they cannot accept new nouns) but they are productive in many other Bantu languages.
  4. Noun Classes 11 to 13, and 19 to 23 do not occur in Sesotho, but do occur in other Bantu languages (isiZulu has class 11, Silozi has Classes 11, 12, and 13, etc.).

Each basic noun in Sesotho has an inherent prefix (even if that prefix is a null prefix: segmentally empty). The speaker's mental lexicon includes the entire word, including the class prefix, which is usually enough to determine the class and therefore the concords as well.

sefate (tree) has prefix se-, which is of class 7, therefore its plural must be difate

Up until class 10, the plural class for class n is class n + 1 (where n is odd). Most languages have these first ten classes, though there are many where some of the classes 1 to 10 are missing.

Though class membership is ultimately determined by morphology (the class prefix and the noun's concords) and not semantics, it is obvious from comparing the class contents of various languages that there are some tentative semantic trends. The strongest trend (which is basically a rule) is that all class 1 nouns are human, and non-human nouns that begin with the mo- prefix are therefore in class 3 (in fact, there are no human class 3 nouns in Sesotho). In many other languages, however, class 1 contains "animate" nouns, and may therefore also contain some non-human nouns.

Motswalle (friend), in class 1, has an irregular plural in class 4 — metswalle. Also, morena (king), has a plural in class 6. Many class 1 words have a tendency of misbehaving, but we know that they belong to class 1 because of their concords. Quite a substantial number of class 1 words have their plurals in class 6.

All these irregularities with the plurals naturally lead to a system where each class is treated as a separate gender, instead of alternatives where the first twelve classes are grouped into six genders.

Often, when the prefix of a noun whose stem begins with a vowel (and is not derived from a vowel verb stem) is obscured by various phonological processes, prefix compounding may occur (instead of the usual prefix substitution) when forming plurals, or even in the singular itself. Some words may even end up in a different class

jwang (grass) in class 14 is often heard as bojwang and has plural majwang, both instances of prefix compounding since the jwa- is the palatalized class 14 prefix bo-.
ngwetsi (daughter-in-law) was originally a class 1 word, whose prefix is velarized and is now treated as a class 9 noun with plural dingwetsi. In Setswana, however, it is still treated as a class 1 noun with plural betsi

In idiomatic speech, the le- of class 5, the se- of class 7, and the di- of classes 8 and 10 are sometimes not rendered when the noun is followed by the appropriate concords. Some historical words, such as letsie (locust), have completely lost their singular prefixes (and, in the case of tsie, ended up in class 9). Others, such as lelapa (family/home) are often rendered without the prefix even when not followed by any prefixes ("at my/the home" is always lapeng). The class 5 noun isao (next year) has completely lost its prefix, and has plural maisao.

Read more about this topic:  Sotho Nouns

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