|1.2 million (2006)|
Tswa is mainly spoken in the rural areas west of Inhambane. Its largest dialect, Hlengwe, extends westwards to Southern Zimbabwe; Maho (2009) considers this to be a distinct language. The other principal dialects are Dzibi (Dzivi) and Dzonga. According to some estimates, there are just over one million BaTswa, but not all can speak the Tswa language. Many Mozambicans, including census officials, often consider it a dialect of Tsonga (Shangaan).
Tswa uses a variant of the Latin alphabet previously used for Tsonga. It is partly based on those developed by the Portuguese colonists and Methodist missionaries to the region. The first major transliterator for the Tswa language into English was the Englishman J. A. Persson, who consolidated the alphabet for Tswa specifically.
The letter 'q' is sometimes used in words imported from Zulu, in which case it is pronounced in various ways, the clicks of Zulu not being native to the Tswa language. There are also several compounds, which include lateral fricatives.
Like most Bantu languages, all syllables end in vowels or nasals, but tone is more important than in most, though it is not commonly written.
Basics of grammar
Tswa is a Bantu language and thus has a noun class system and verbal system easily recognisable to Bantu speakers throughout Eastern and Southern Africa. In general the system is the same as in most Bantu languages. The following details are more specific.
Noun class system
Instead of genders there are eight classes which have a similar but more complex role, where each noun begins with a class prefix as below:
|1||mu-||ba-||mainly nouns for people|
|3||gi-||ma-||impersonal objects, particularly fruit|
|4||xi-||ẑi-||tools, means, languages, diminutives, defects, verbal nouns|
|5||yi-||ti-||particularly nouns for animals|
|6||li-||ti-||mental qualities, states of mind, verbal nouns|
Tswa verbs change according to status (affirmative/negative), mood (indicative/potential), aspect, tense, number, person and class. The usual three persons used in the Bantu group apply, and the first and second persons plural are maximally inclusive. The class link is usually written as a separate word, as in Tsonga and Ronga. Otherwise the paradigm is organised as follows:
- Present continuous
- Past continuous
- Future perfect
- Past continuous
- Future Perfect
Grammatical Peculiarities of Linguistic Interest
Though Tswa does have a subjunctive, it does not change the standard '-a' at the end of a verb to an '-e' like most of the surrounding Bantu languages, unless it is used as an implied imperative in a dependent clause – a peculiarity it shares with the Tsonga and Ronga. The 'xi-' class, unlike its seeming equivalents in other languages, more closely mirrors the Nguni 'isi-' in that it has a strongly diminutive use.