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About Tshivenda Language

Tshivenda is a southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa. In 1994 Tshivenda became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of Tshivenda speakers to be just over a million. At 2% of the population, Tshivenda speakers therefore constitute the second smallest official language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are situated in the Northern Province. There is also a significant number of Venda speakers in the industrialized province of Gauteng. This summary explores the linguistic derivation of the language, the history of written codification and dialectal variation, and recent attempts to standardize the language in South Africa.

Tshivenda forms part of the “Southern Bantu” group of African languages, which in turn forms part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The Central subgroup is further subdivided into geographical regions, each designated by a letter. The S-Group covers much of southern Africa and includes the five major dialect continua of southern Africa: the Nguni languages; the Sotho-Tswana languages; the Chopi languages; the Shona languages; the Tswa-Ronga languages and the Venda languages. Tshivenda is not clearly related to any other southern African language and is therefore classed as an isolate. Tshivenda speakers are nevertheless considered culturally closer to Shona speakers than any of the other major groups. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence Tshivenda is commonly referred to as “Venda.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. The language is also commonly referred to as “Chivenda.”

Venda speakers first settled in the Soutpansberg Mountains region. The ruins of their first capital, Dzata's Place, can still be found there. This region is situated in the northernmost reaches of South Africa, just south of Zimbabwe.

Tshivenda is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. Like the other indigenous South African languages, Tshivenda is also a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. Regional dialects include Tshipani, Tshiilafuri, Tshimanda, Tshimbedzi, Tshilembethu, Tshironga (Southern Venda) and Tshiguvhu (South-Eastern Venda). Examples of phrases in the language include: Ndaa / Aa (hello); Vho vuwa hani? (How are you?); Ne ndo takala vhukuma (I am fine).

Like the other official African languages, Tshivenda was first codified by European missionaries during the nineteenth century. Members of the Berlin Missionary Society first reduced the language to writing in 1972. The standardized language was based on the Tshipani dialect. Translations of the Bible and school readers were the first literary works produced. The first modern literary work was Elelwani, published in 1954 by T.N. Maumela. Literature in the language includes poetry, drama, novels, short stories, essays, works on traditional literature, grammar manuals and dictionaries. The most prolific authors in the language are T.N.Maumela, E.S. Madima, P.S.M. Masekela, M.E.R. Mathivha, P.R. Ngwana and W.M.D. Phophi.

As with the other indigenous languages, the apartheid era has had an ambiguous legacy with respect to language development in Tshivenda. During the apartheid period, the ruling National Party’s policy of Grand Apartheid was built on a vision of ethno-linguistically discrete territories for South Africa’s indigenous population. Beginning after 1960, the widely condemned “Bantustan” policies of Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd resulted in the creation of ten self-governing territories in predominantly rural areas of South Africa. Thus the independent territory of “Venda” was created in the northern Transvaal (today the Northern Province), to serve as the designated homeland of Tshivenda speakers. This regional authority was subsequently reincorporated into the Northern Province administration.

Under apartheid separate language boards were also created for each of the nine standardized indigenous languages, including Tshivenda. These boards effectively appropriated the work of language development that had previously been done by missionaries. The Venda Language Board sought to standardize the spelling and grammar of the language, thereby establishing a standard for printing and teaching. The language board nevertheless also had a control function, restricting the range of issues that were allowed to be published. Thus political protest literature tended to be screened out.

Following the democratic transition 1994 responsibility for language policy and development now rests with the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. A new body – the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) – was also created and charged with responsibility for language planning. PanSALB has sought to facilitate the further development of the language. The Tshivenda Lexicography Unit has therefore been created and is responsible for developing terminology in the language. The development of the language in education has proven to be especially difficult. The language is used in the administration of the Northern Province. This being one of the poorest provinces, however, the capacity for language development at regional level is limited. The heartland of the language is also located in a predominantly rural area and increasingly the younger generation is compelled to migrate to the urban areas in search of work. Here they are compelled to learn other languages. The oral tradition remains strong in the rural areas and has exerted a strong influence prolific writers such as T.N. Maumela, E.S. Madima, T.N. Makuya. Most written work is however still produced for schools and the culture of reading among Tshivenda speakers is still very low. While the language is taught as a subject at all levels, it is only used as a medium of instruction in certain schools from grade 1 to grade 3. Tshivenda has one radio station, Radio Phalaphala, but no significant presence on television and no newspapers.


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