Chewa language

Last updated
Chichewa, Chinyanja
Native to Malawi
Region Southeast Africa
Ethnicity Chewa
Native speakers
7 million (2007) [1]
Latin (Chewa alphabet)
Chewa Braille
Official status
Official language in
Flag of Malawi.svg  Malawi
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ny
ISO 639-2 nya
ISO 639-3 nya
Glottolog nyan1308
N.30 (N.31, N.121) [2]
Linguasphere 99-AUS-xaa – xag
Chewa map.svg
Areas where Chewa is the dominant language (purple). Solid green signifies a nation where Chewa is an official language, striped green signifies a nation where Chewa is a recognized minority language.
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
People Achewa
A Nyanja speaker, from near Lusaka, recorded in South Africa

Chewa (also known as Nyanja, /ˈnjænə/ ) is a Bantu language spoken in Malawi and a recognised minority in Zambia and Mozambique. The noun class prefix chi- is used for languages, [3] so the language is usually called Chichewa and Chinyanja (spelled Cinianja in Portuguese). In Malawi, the name was officially changed from Chinyanja to Chichewa in 1968 at the insistence of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda (himself of the Chewa people), and this is still the name most commonly used in Malawi today. [4] In Zambia, the language is generally known as Nyanja or Cinyanja/Chinyanja '(language) of the lake' (referring to Lake Malawi). [5]


Chewa belongs to the same language group (Guthrie Zone N) as Tumbuka, Sena [6] and Nsenga.Throughout the history of Malawi, only Chewa and Tumbuka have at one time been the primary dominant national languages used by government officials and in school curriculums. However, the Tumbuka language suffered a lot during the rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, since in 1968 as a result of his one-nation, one-language policy it lost its status as an official language in Malawi. As a result, Tumbuka was removed from the school curriculum, the national radio, and the print media. [7] With the advent of multi-party democracy in 1994, Tumbuka programmes were started again on the radio, but the number of books and other publications in Tumbuka remains low. [8]


Chewa is the most widely known language of Malawi, spoken mostly in the Central and Southern Regions of that country. [9] It is also spoken in Eastern Province of Zambia, as well as in Mozambique, especially in the provinces of Tete and Niassa. [10] [ self-published source? ] It was one of the 55 languages featured on the Voyager spacecraft. [11]


The Chewa were a branch of the Maravi people who lived in the Eastern Province of Zambia and in northern Mozambique as far south as the River Zambezi from the 16th century or earlier. [12] [13]

The name "Chewa" (in the form Chévas) itself is first recorded by António Gamitto, who at the age of 26 in 1831 was appointed as second-in-command of an expedition from Tete to the court of King Kazembe in what is now Zambia. His route took him through the country of King Undi west of the Dzalanyama mountains, across a corner of present-day Malawi and on into Zambia. [14] Later he wrote an account including some ethnographic and linguistic notes and vocabularies. According to Gamitto, the Malawi or Maravi people (Maraves) were those ruled by King Undi south of the Chambwe stream (not far south of the present border between Mozambique and Zambia), while the Chewa lived north of the Chambwe. [15]

Another, more extensive, list of 263 words and phrases of the language was made by the German missionary Sigismund Koelle who, working in Sierra Leone in West Africa, interviewed some 160 former slaves and recorded vocabularies in their languages. He published the results in a book called Polyglotta Africana in 1854. Among other slaves was one Mateke, who spoke what he calls "Maravi". Mateke's language is clearly an early form of Nyanja, but in a southern dialect. For example, the phrase zaka ziwiri "two years" was dzaka dziŵiri in Mateke's speech, whereas for Johannes Rebmann's informant Salimini, who came from the Lilongwe region, it was bzaka bziŵiri. [16] The same dialect difference survives today in the word dzala or bzala "(to) plant". [17]

Apart from the few words recorded by Gamitto and Koelle, the first extensive record of the Chewa language was made by Johannes Rebmann in his Dictionary of the Kiniassa Language, published in 1877 but written in 1853–4. Rebmann was a missionary living near Mombasa in Kenya, and he obtained his information from a Malawian slave, known by the Swahili name Salimini, who had been captured in Malawi some ten years earlier. [18] Salimini, who came from a place called Mphande apparently in the Lilongwe region, also noted some differences between his own dialect, which he called Kikamtunda, the "language of the plateau", and the Kimaravi dialect spoken further south; for example, the Maravi gave the name mombo to the tree which he himself called kamphoni. [19]

The first grammar, A Grammar of the Chinyanja language as spoken at Lake Nyasa with Chinyanja–English and English–Chinyanja vocabulary, was written by Alexander Riddel in 1880. Further early grammars and vocabularies include A grammar of Chinyanja, a language spoken in British Central Africa, on and near the shores of Lake Nyasa by George Henry (1891) and M.E. Woodward's A vocabulary of English–Chinyanja and Chinyanja–English: as spoken at Likoma, Lake Nyasa (1895). The whole Bible was translated into the Likoma Island dialect of Nyanja by William Percival Johnson and published as Chikalakala choyera: ndicho Malangano ya Kale ndi Malangano ya Chapano in 1912. [20] Another Bible translation, known as the Buku Lopatulika ndilo Mau a Mulungu, was made in a more standard Central Region dialect about 1900–1922 by missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Mission and Church of Scotland with the help of some Malawians. This has recently (2016) been reissued in a revised and slightly modernised version. [21]

Another early grammar, concentrating on the Kasungu dialect of the language, was Mark Hanna Watkins' A Grammar of Chichewa (1937). This book, the first grammar of any African language to be written by an American, was a work of cooperation between a young black PhD student and young student from Nyasaland studying in Chicago, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who in 1966 was to become the first President of the Republic of Malawi. [22] [23] This grammar is also remarkable in that it was the first to mark the tones of the words. Modern monographs on aspects of Chichewa grammar include Mtenje (1986), Kanerva (1990), Mchombo (2004) and Downing & Mtenje (2017).

In recent years the language has changed considerably, and a dichotomy has grown between the traditional Chichewa of the villages and the language of city-dwellers. [24]



Chewa has five vowel sounds: a, ɛ, i, ɔ, u; these are written a, e, i, o, u. Long or double vowels are sometimes found, e.g. áákúlu 'big' (class 2), kufúula 'to shout'. [25] When a word comes at the end of a phrase, its penultimate vowel tends to be lengthened, [26] except for non-Chewa names and words, such as Muthárika or ófesi, in which the penultimate vowel always remains short.[ citation needed ] The added 'u' or 'i' in borrowed words such as láputopu 'laptop' or íntaneti 'internet' tends to be silent or barely pronounced. [27]

Chewa Vowels
Front Central Back
Close i u
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a


Chewa consonants can be plain (i.e. followed by a vowel), labialised (i.e. followed by w), or palatalised (i.e. followed by or combined with y):

In this scheme, the place of bya is taken by the palatalised affricate bza, and the place of gya is taken by ja, and sya is replaced by sha.

Another way of classifying the consonants is according to whether they are voiced, unvoiced, aspirated, nasal, or approximant:

Voiced and aspirated consonants, as well as [f] and [s], can also be preceded by a homorganic nasal:

The possible consonant combinations can thus be arranged on a table as follows:

Chewa Consonants
Labial Dental Velar/Palatal Glottal
plain palatalised labialised plain palatalised labialised plain labialised
Nasal ma
Stop voiceless pa
aspirated pha
Pre-nasalized aspirated mpha
voiced ba
Pre-nasalized voiced mba
Affricate voiceless psa
aspirated tcha
Pre-nasalized aspirated mpsa
voiced bza
Pre-nasalized voiced mbza
Fricative voiceless fa
Pre-nasalized mfa
voiced va
Pre-nasalized voiced mva
Approximant (ŵa)

The spelling used here is that introduced in 1973, [28] which is the one generally in use in the Malawi at the present time, replacing the Chinyanja Orthography Rules of 1931. [29]

Notes on the consonants


Like most other Bantu languages, Chewa is a tonal language; that is to say, the pitch of the syllables (high or low) plays an important role in it. Tone is used in various ways in the language. First of all, each word has its own tonal pattern, for example: [46]

Usually there is only one high tone in a word (generally on one of the last three syllables), or none. However, in compound words there can be more than one high tone, for example:

A second important use of tone is in the verb. Each tense of the verb has its own characteristic tonal pattern (negative tenses usually have a different pattern from positive ones). [47] For example, the present habitual has high tones on the initial syllable and the penultimate, the other syllables being low:

The recent past continuous and present continuous, on the other hand, have a tone on the third syllable:

Tones can also indicate whether a verb is being used in a main clause or in a dependent clause such as a relative clause: [48] [49]

A third use of tones in Chewa is to show phrasing and sentence intonation. For example, immediately before a pause in the middle of a sentence the speaker's voice tends to rise up; this rise is referred to as a boundary tone. [50] Other intonational tones are sometimes heard, for example a rising or falling tone at the end of a yes-no question. [51] [52]


Noun classes

Chewa nouns are divided for convenience into a number of classes, which are referred to by the Malawians themselves by names such as "Mu-A-", [53] but by Bantu specialists by numbers such as "1/2", corresponding to the classes in other Bantu languages. Conventionally, they are grouped into pairs of singular and plural. However, irregular pairings are also possible, especially with loanwords; for example, bánki 'bank', which takes the concords of class 9 in the singular, has a plural mabánki (class 6). [54]

When assigning nouns to a particular class, initially the prefix of the noun is used. Where there is no prefix, or where the prefix is ambiguous, the concords (see below) are used as a guide to the noun class. For example, katúndu 'possessions' is put in class 1, since it takes the class 1 demonstrative uyu 'this'. [55]

Some nouns belong to one class only, e.g. tomáto 'tomato(es)' (class 1), mowa 'beer' (class 3), malayá 'shirt(s)' (class 6), udzudzú 'mosquito(es)' (class 14), and do not change between singular and plural. Despite this, such words can still be counted if appropriate: tomáto muwíri 'two tomatoes', mowa uwíri 'two beers', malayá amódzi 'one shirt', udzudzú umódzi 'one mosquito'. [56]

Class 11 (Lu-) is not found in Chewa. Words like lumo 'razor' and lusó 'skill' are considered to belong to class 5/6 (Li-Ma-) and take the concords of that class. [57]

Infinitive class:

Locative classes:


Pronouns, adjectives, and verbs have to show agreement with nouns in Chichewa. This is done by means of prefixes, for example:

Class 2 (the plural of class 1) is often used for respect when referring to elders. According to Corbett and Mtenje, a word like bambo 'father', even though it is singular, will take plural concords (e.g. bambo anga akuyenda, ndikuwaona 'my father is walking, I see him'); they note that to use the singular object-marker -mu- would be 'grossly impolite'. [58]

The various prefixes are shown on the table below:

Table of Chewa concords
17kutsogolóin frontukuukokó-ku--koku-kujakwákó-kwínakwáku-

There are 17 different noun classes, but because some of them share concords there are in fact only 12 distinct sets of prefixes.

Examples of the use of concords

In the examples below, the concords are illustrated mainly with nouns of classes 1 and 2.

Demonstratives 'this' and 'that'

  • uyu ndaní? 'who is this?'; awa ndaní? 'who are these?' (or: 'who is this gentleman?' (respectful))
  • mwaná uyu (mwanáyu) 'this child'; aná awa (anáwa) 'these children'
  • mwaná uyo (mwanáyo) 'that child'; aná awo (anáwo) 'those children'

The shortened forms are more common.

Pronominal , (w)ó etc.

Prefixed by a supporting vowel, or by 'with' or ndi 'it is', these make the pronouns 'he/she' and 'they':

  • iyé 'he/she'; iwó 'they' (or 'he/she' (respectful))
  • náye 'with him/her'; náwo 'with them' (or 'with him/her' (respectful))
  • ndiyé 'it is he/she'; ndiwó 'it is they'

For classes other than classes 1 and 2, a demonstrative is used instead of a freestanding pronoun, for example in class 6 ichi or icho. But forms prefixed by ná- and ndi- such as nácho and ndichó are found.

yénse, yékha, yémwe

The three pronominal adjectives yénse 'all', yékha 'alone', yémwe 'that same' (or 'who') have the same pronominal concords yé- and (w)ó-, this time as prefixes:

  • Maláwi yénse 'the whole of Malawi'
  • aná ónse 'all the children'
  • yékha 'on his/her own'
  • ókha 'on their own'
  • mwaná yemwéyo 'that same child'
  • aná omwéwo 'those same children'

In classes 2 and 6, ó- often becomes wó- (e.g. wónse for ónse etc.).

The commonly used word álíyensé 'every' is compounded from the verb áli 'who is' and yénse 'all'. Both parts of the word have concords:

  • mwaná álíyensé 'every child'
  • aná awíri álíonsé 'every two children'
  • nyumbá ílíyonsé 'every house' (class 4)
  • chaká chílíchonsé 'every year' (class 7)

Subject prefix

As with other Bantu languages, all Chewa verbs have a prefix which agrees with the subject of the verb. In modern Chewa, the class 2 prefix (formerly ŵa-) has become a-, identical with the prefix of class 1:

  • mwaná ápita 'the child will go'; aná ápita 'the children will go'

The perfect tense (wapita 'he/she has gone', apita 'they have gone') has different subject prefixes from the other tenses (see below).

améne 'who'

The relative pronoun améne 'who' and demonstrative améneyo use the same prefixes as a verb:

  • mwaná améne 'the child who'
  • aná améne 'the children who'
  • mwaná améneyo 'that child'
  • aná aménewo 'those children'
  • nyumbá iméneyo 'that house'
  • nyumbá ziménezo 'those houses'

Object infix

The use of an object infix is not obligatory in Chewa (for example, ndagula means 'I have bought (them)'). If used, it comes immediately before the verb root, and agrees with the object:

  • ndamúona 'I have seen him/her'; ndawáona 'I have seen them' (sometimes shortened to ndaáona).

The object infix of classes 16, 17, and 18 is usually replaced by a suffix: ndaonámo 'I have seen inside it'.

The same infix with verbs with the applicative suffix -ira represents the indirect object, e.g. ndamúlembera 'I have written to him'.

Numeral concords

Numeral concords are used with numbers -módzi 'one', -wíri 'two', -tátu 'three', -náyi 'four', -sanu 'five', and the words -ngáti? 'how many', -ngápo 'several':

  • mwaná mmódzi 'one child'; aná awíri 'two children'; aná angáti? 'how many children?'

The class 1 prefix m- becomes mu- before -wiri: tomáto muwíri 'two tomatoes'.

The number khúmi 'ten' has no concord.

Demonstratives uja and uno

The demonstrative pronouns uja 'that one you know' and uno 'this one we are in' take the concords u- and a- in classes 1 and 2. For semantic reasons, class 1 uno is rare:

  • mwaná uja 'that child (the one you know)'; aná aja 'those children' (those ones you know)
  • mwezí uno 'this month (we are in)' (class 3); masíkú ano 'these days'; ku Maláwí kuno 'here in Malawi (where we are now)' (class 17).

Perfect tense subject prefix

The same concords w- (derived from u-) and a-, combined with the vowel a, make the subject prefix of the perfect tense. In the plural the two prefixes a-a- combine into a single vowel:

  • mwaná wapita 'the child has gone; aná apita 'the children have gone'

Possessive concord

The concords w- (derived from u-) and a- are also found in the word á 'of':

  • mwaná wá Mphátso 'Mphatso's child'; aná á Mphátso 'Mphatso's children'

The same concords are used in possessive adjectives -ánga 'my', -áko 'your', -áke 'his/her/its/their', -áthu 'our', -ánu 'your (plural or respectful singular), -áwo 'their'/'his/her' (respectful):

  • mwaná wángá 'my child'; aná ángá 'my children'

-áwo 'their' is used only of people (-áke is used for things).

'of' can be combined with nouns or adverbs to make adjectives:

  • mwaná wánzérú 'an intelligent child'; aná ánzérú 'intelligent children'
  • mwaná ábwino a good child'; aná ábwino 'good children'

In the same way 'of' combines with the ku- of the infinitive to make verbal adjectives. + ku- usually shortens to wó-, except where the verb root is monosyllabic:

  • mwaná wókóngola 'a beautiful child'; aná ókóngola 'beautiful children'
  • mwaná wákúbá 'a thieving child'; aná ákúbá 'thieving children'

-ína 'other' and -ení-éní 'real'

The same w- and a- concords are found with the words -ína 'other' and -ení-éní 'real'. In combination with these words the plural concord a- is converted to e-:

  • mwaná wína 'a certain child, another child'; aná éna 'certain children, other children'
  • mwaná weníwéní 'a real child'; aná eníéní 'real children'

Double-prefix adjectives

Certain adjectives (-kúlu 'big', -ng'óno 'small'; -(a)múna 'male', -kázi 'female'; -táli 'long', 'tall', -fúpi 'short'; -wisi 'fresh') have a double prefix, combining the possessive concord (wá-) and the number concord (m- or mw-):

  • mwaná wáḿkúlu 'a big child'; aná áákúlu 'big children'
  • mwaná wáḿng'óno 'a small child'; aná ááng'óno 'little children'
  • mwaná wámwámúna 'a male child'; aná áámúna 'male children'
  • mwaná wáḿkázi 'a female child'; aná áákázi 'female children'

Historic changes

Early dictionaries, such as those of Rebmann, and of Scott and Hetherwick, show that formerly the number of concords was greater. The following changes have taken place:

In addition, classes 4 and 9, and classes 15 and 17 have identical concords, so the total number of concord sets (singular and plural) is now twelve.


Formation of tenses

Tenses in Chichewa are differentiated in two ways, by their tense-marker (or tense-infix), and by their tonal pattern. Sometimes two tenses have the same tense-marker and differ in their tonal pattern alone. In the following examples, the tense-marker is underlined: [62] [63]

One tense has no tense-marker:

Tenses can be modified further by adding certain other infixes, called 'aspect-markers', after the tense-marker. These are -má- 'always, usually' -ká- 'go and', -dzá 'come and' or 'in future', and -ngo- 'only', 'just'. These infixes can also be used on their own, as tense-markers in their own right (compare the use of -ma- and -dza- in the list of tenses above). For example:

Compound tenses, such as the following, are also found in Chichewa: [67]


Chichewa verbs (with the exception of the imperative mood and infinitive) begin with a prefix agreeing grammatically with the subject. [68] This prefix is referred to by some grammarians as the 'subject-marker'. [69]

The subject-marker can be:

An example of a locative subject-marker is:

Both the 2nd and the 3rd person plural pronouns and subject-markers are used respectfully to refer to a single person: [73]

Except in the perfect tense, the 3rd person subject marker when used of people is the same whether singular or plural. So in the present tense the 3rd person subject-marker is a-:

But in the perfect tense wa- (singular) contrasts with a- (plural or respectful):

When the subject is a noun not in class 1, the appropriate class prefix is used even if referring to a person:


An object-marker can also optionally be added to the verb; if one is added it goes immediately before the verb-stem. [74] The 2nd person plural adds -ni after the verb:

The object-marker can be:

When used with a toneless verb tense such as the perfect, the object-marker has a high tone, but in some tenses such as the present habitual, the tone is lost: [76]

With the imperative or subjunctive, the tone of the object-marker goes on the syllable following it, and the imperative ending changes to -e: [77]

Variety of tenses

Chewa has a large number of tenses, some of which differ in some respects from the tenses met with in European languages. The distinction between one tense and another is made partly by the use of infixes, such as -na- and -ku-, and partly by the intonation of the verb, since each tense has its own particular tonal pattern.

Near vs. remote

There are five time-frames (remote past, near past, present, near future, and remote future). The distinction between near and remote tenses is not exact. The remote tenses are not used of events of today or last night, but the near tenses can sometimes be used of events of earlier or later than today:

  • ndi-ná-gula 'I bought (yesterday or some days ago)' (remote perfect)
  • nd-a-gula 'I have bought (today)' (perfect)
  • ndi-ku-gúla 'I am buying (now)' (present)
  • ndí-gula 'I'll buy (today)' (near future)
  • ndi-dzá-gula 'I'll buy (tomorrow or later)' (remote future)

Perfect vs. past

Another distinction is between perfect and past. [78] [79] The two perfect tenses imply that the event described had an outcome which still obtains now. The two past tenses usually imply that the result of the action has been reversed in some way:

Recent time (today):

  • nd-a-gula 'I have bought it' (and still have it) (Perfect)
  • ndi-na-gúla 'I bought it (but no longer have it)' (Recent Past)

Remote time (yesterday or earlier):

  • ndi-ná-gula or ndi-dá-gula 'I bought it' (and still have it) (Remote Perfect)
  • ndí-ná-a-gúla or ndí-dá-a-gúla 'I bought it (but no longer have it)' (Remote Past)

When used in narrating a series of events, however, these implications are somewhat relaxed: the Remote Perfect is used for narrating earlier events, and the Recent Past for narrating events of today. [80]

Perfective vs. imperfective

Another important distinction in Chewa is between perfective and imperfective aspect. Imperfective tenses are used for situations, events which occur regularly, or events which are temporarily in progress:

  • ndi-nká-gúlá 'I used to buy', 'I was buying (a long time ago)'
  • ndi-ma-gúla 'I was buying (today)', 'I used to buy (a long time ago)'
  • ndí-zi-dza-gúla 'I will be buying (regularly)'

In the present tense only, there is a further distinction between habitual and progressive:

  • ndí-ma-gúla 'I buy (regularly)'
  • ndi-ku-gúla 'I am buying (currently)'

Other tenses

One future tense not found in European languages is the -ká- future, which 'might presuppose an unspoken conditional clause': [81]

  • ndí-ká-gula 'I will buy' (if I go there, or when I get there)

There are also various subjunctive and potential mood tenses, such as:

  • ndi-gulé 'I should buy'
  • ndi--gúlá 'I should be buying'
  • ndi-dzá-gúlé 'I should buy (in future)'
  • ndi-nga-gule 'I can buy'
  • ndi-kadá-gula 'I would have bought'

Negative tenses

Negative tenses, if they are main verbs, are made with the prefix sí-. They differ in intonation from the positive tenses. [82] The negative of the -ná- tense has the ending -e instead of -a:

Tenses which mean 'will not' or 'have not yet' have a single tone on the penultimate syllable:

Infinitives, participial verbs, and the subjunctive make their negative with -sa-, which is added after the subject-prefix instead of before it. They similarly have a single tone on the penultimate syllable:

Dependent clause tenses

The tenses used in certain kinds of dependent clauses (such as relative clauses and some types of temporal clauses) differ from those used in main clauses. Dependent verbs often have a tone on the first syllable. Sometimes this change of tone alone is sufficient to show that the verb is being used in a dependent clause. [84] [48] Compare for example:

Other commonly used dependent tenses are the following:

There is also a series of tenses using a toneless -ka- meaning 'when' of 'if', for example: [85] [86]

Verb extensions

After the verb stem one or more extensions may be added. The extensions modify the meaning of the verb, for example:

The extensions -ul-/-ol- and its intransitive form -uk-/-ok- are called 'reversive'. They give meanings such as 'open', 'undo', 'unstick', 'uncover':

Most extensions, apart from the reciprocal -an- 'one another', have two possible forms, e.g. -ir-/-er-, -idw-/-edw-, -its-/-ets-, -iz-/-ez-, -ul-/-ol-, -uk-/-ok-. The forms with i and u are used when the verb stem has a, i, or u. u can also follow e:

The forms with e are used if the verb stem is monosyllabic or has an e or o in it: [87]

Extensions with o are used only with a monosyllabic stem or one with o:

The extension -its-, -ets- with a low tone is causative, but when it has a high tone it is intensive. The high tone is heard on the final syllable of the verb:

The applicative -ir-, -er- can also sometimes be intensive, in which case it has a high tone:

Verbs with -ik-, -ek-, -uk-, -ok- when they have a stative or intransitive meaning also usually have a high tone:

However, there are some low-toned exceptions such as on-ek-a 'seem' or nyam-uk-a 'set off'. [88]


Story-writers and playwrights

The following have written published stories, novels, or plays in the Chewa language:


Town Nyanja (Zambia)

Town Nyanja
Native toZambia
Region Lusaka
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None
none [2]

An urban variety of Nyanja, sometimes called Town Nyanja, is the lingua franca of the Zambian capital Lusaka and is widely spoken as a second language throughout Zambia. This is a distinctive Nyanja dialect with some features of Nsenga, although the language also incorporates large numbers of English-derived words, as well as showing influence from other Zambian languages such as Bemba. Town Nyanja has no official status, and the presence of large numbers of loanwords and colloquial expressions has given rise to the misconception that it is an unstructured mixture of languages or a form of slang.

Zambian Town Nyanja.

The fact that the standard Nyanja used in schools differs dramatically from the variety actually spoken in Lusaka has been identified as a barrier to the acquisition of literacy among Zambian children. [93]

The concords in Town Nyanja differ from those in Chichewa described above. For example, classes 5 and 6 both have the concord ya- instead of la- and a-; class 8 has va- instead of za-; and 13 has twa- instead of ta-. [94] In addition, the subject and object marker for "I" is ni- rather than ndi-, and that for "they" is βa- (spelled "ba-") rather than a-. [95]

Sample phrases

EnglishChewa (Malawi) [96] Town Nyanja (Lusaka) [97]
How are you?Muli bwanji?Muli bwanji?
I'm fineNdili bwinoNili bwino / Nili mushe
Thank youZikomoZikomo
What's your name?Dzina lanu ndani? [98] Zina yanu ndimwe bandani?
My name is...Dzina langa ndine...Zina yanga ndine...
How many children do you have?Muli ndi ana angati?Muli na bana bangati? ('b' = [ŵ])
I have two childrenNdili ndi ana awiriNili na bana babili
I want...Ndikufuna...Nifuna...
How much is it?Ndi zingati?Ni zingati?
See you tomorrowTionana mawaTizaonana mailo
I love youNdimakukondaNikukonda

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bantu languages</span> Large language family spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Bantu languages are a language family of about 600 languages that are spoken by the Bantu peoples of Central, Southern, Eastern and Southeast Africa. They form the largest branch of the Southern Bantoid languages.

Ganda or Luganda is a Bantu language spoken in the African Great Lakes region. It is one of the major languages in Uganda and is spoken by more than 5.56 million Baganda and other people principally in central Uganda, including the country's capital, Kampala. Typologically, it is an agglutinative, tonal language with subject–verb–object word order and nominative–accusative morphosyntactic alignment.

A pitch-accent language is a type of language that, when spoken, has certain syllables in words or morphemes that are prominent, as indicated by a distinct contrasting pitch rather than by loudness or length, as in some other languages like English. Pitch-accent languages also contrast with fully tonal languages like Vietnamese, Thai and Standard Chinese, in which practically every syllable can have an independent tone. Some scholars have claimed that the term "pitch accent" is not coherently defined and that pitch-accent languages are just a sub-category of tonal languages in general.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bemba language</span> Bantu language of northeastern Zambia

The Bemba language, ChiBemba, is a Bantu language spoken primarily in north-eastern Zambia by the Bemba people and as a lingua franca by about 18 related ethnic groups.

The Tumbuka language is a Bantu language which is spoken in Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania. It is also known by the autonym Chitumbuka also spelled Citumbuka — the chi- prefix in front of Tumbuka means "in the manner of", and is understood in this case to mean "the language of the Tumbuka people". Tumbuka belongs to the same language group as Chewa and Sena.

Meeussen's rule is a special case of tone reduction. It was first described in Bantu languages, but occurs in analyses of other languages as well, such as Papuan languages. The tonal alternation it describes is the lowering, in some contexts, of the last tone of a pattern of two adjacent High tones (HH), resulting in the pattern HL. The phenomenon is named after its first observer, the Belgian Bantu specialist A. E. Meeussen (1912–1978). In phonological terms, the phenomenon can be seen as a special case of the Obligatory Contour Principle.

Tonga (Chitonga), also known as Zambezi, is a Bantu language primarily spoken by the Tonga people who live mainly in the Southern province, Lusaka province, Central Province and Western province of Zambia, and in northern Zimbabwe, with a few in northwest Mozambique. The language is also spoken by the Iwe, Toka and Leya people among others, as well as many bilingual Zambians and Zimbabweans. In Zambia Tonga is taught in schools as first language in the whole of Southern Province, Lusaka and Central Provinces.

Tooro or Rutooro is a Bantu language spoken mainly by the Tooro people (Abatooro) from the Tooro Kingdom in western Uganda. There are three main areas where Tooro as a language is mainly used: Kabarole District, Kyenjojo District and Kyegegwa District. Tooro is unique among Bantu languages as it lacks lexical tone. It is most closely related to Runyoro.

Sesotho nouns signify concrete or abstract concepts in the language, but are distinct from the Sesotho pronouns.

Yao is a Bantu language in Africa with approximately two million speakers in Malawi, and half a million each in Tanzania and Mozambique. There are also some speakers in Zambia. In Malawi, the main dialect is Mangochi, mostly spoken around Lake Malawi. In Mozambique, the main dialects are Makale and Massaninga. The language has also gone by several other names in English, including chiYao or ciYao, Achawa, Adsawa, Adsoa, Ajawa, Ayawa, Ayo, Ayao, Djao, Haiao, Hiao, Hyao, Jao, Veiao, and waJao.

Malawi Lomwe, known as Elhomwe, is a dialect of the Lomwe language spoken in southeastern Malawi in parts such as Mulanje and Thyolo.

The grammar of the Otomi language displays a mixture of elements of synthetic and analytic structures. Particularly the phrase-level morphology is synthetic, whereas the sentence-level is analytic. Simultaneously, the language is head-marking in terms of its verbal morphology, but not in its nominal morphology, which is more analytic. Otomi recognizes three large open word classes of nouns, verbs, and particles. There is a small closed class of property words, variously analyzed as adjectives or stative verbs.

Zulu grammar is the way in which meanings are encoded into wordings in the Zulu language. Zulu grammar is typical for Bantu languages, bearing all the hallmarks of this language family. These include agglutinativity, a rich array of noun classes, extensive inflection for person, tense and aspect, and a subject–verb–object word order.

The Lomwe (Lowe) language, Elomwe, also known as Western Makua, is the fourth-largest language in Mozambique. It belongs with Makua in the group of distinctive Bantu languages in the northern part of the country: The Makhuwa-using area proper is separated by a large Lomwe-speaking area from the related eChuwabo, although eMakhuwa neighbours eChuwabo in a more coastal zone. To the south, the rather more distantly related Sena (ChiSena) should be assigned to a group with Nyanja and Chewa, while the distinct group which includes Yao, Makonde and Mwera is found to the north. Apart from the regional variations found within eMakhuwa proper, eLomwe uses ch where tt appears in eMakhuwa orthography: for instance eMakhuwa mirette ("remedy") corresponds to eLomwe mirecce, eMakhuwa murrutthu to eLomwe miruchu, eMakhuwa otthapa ("joy") to eLomwe ochapa.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tonga language (Malawi)</span> Bantu language spoken in Malawi

Tonga is a Bantu language spoken mainly in the Nkhata Bay District of Malawi. The number of speakers is estimated to be 170,000. According to the Mdawuku wa Atonga (MWATO) there are also significant numbers of speakers living elsewhere in Malawi and in neighbouring countries.

Ila (Chiila) is a language of Zambia. Maho (2009) lists Lundwe (Shukulumbwe) and Sala as distinct languages most closely related to Ila. Ila is one of the languages of the Earth included on the Voyager Golden Record.

Chichewa is the main language spoken in south and central Malawi, and to a lesser extent in Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Like most other Bantu languages, it is tonal; that is to say, pitch patterns are an important part of the pronunciation of words. Thus, for example, the word chímanga (high-low-low) 'maize' can be distinguished from chinangwá (low-low-high) 'cassava' not only by its consonants but also by its pitch pattern. These patterns remain constant in whatever context the nouns are used.

Chichewa is the main lingua franca of central and southern Malawi and neighbouring regions. Like other Bantu languages it has a wide range of tenses. In terms of time, Chichewa tenses can be divided into present, recent past, remote past, near future, and remote future. The dividing line between near and remote tenses is not exact, however. Remote tenses cannot be used of events of today, but near tenses can be used of events earlier or later than today.

Swahili is a Bantu language which is native to or mainly spoken in the East African region. It has a grammatical structure that is typical for Bantu languages, bearing all the hallmarks of this language family. These include agglutinativity, a rich array of noun classes, extensive inflection for person, tense, aspect and mood, and generally a subject–verb–object word order.

Alfred (“Al”) D. Mtenje is a professor of Linguistics at the University of Malawi. He is known for his work on the prosody of Malawian Bantu languages, as well as for his work in support of language policies promoting the native languages of Malawi.


  1. Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. 1 2 Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  3. cf.Kiswahili for the Swahili language.
  4. Kishindo (2001), p.265.
  5. For spelling Chinyanja cf. Lehmann (1977). Both spellings are used in Zambia Daily Mail articles.
  6. Kiso (2012), pp.21ff.
  7. Kamwendo (2004), p.278.
  8. See Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi (2006), pp.38–40 for a list of publications.
  9. Mchombo (2006).
  10. Malawian Writers and Their Country, edited by Bridgette Kasuka, published on, page 143 [ self-published source ]
  11. "Voyager Greetings". Archived from the original on 2016-10-25. Retrieved 2016-01-02.
  12. Marwick (1963)
  13. Newitt (1982).
  14. Marwick (1964).
  15. Marwick (1963), p.383.
  16. Goodson (2011).
  17. Downing & Mtenje (2017), p. 46.
  18. Rebman (1877), preface.
  19. Rebmann (1877) s.v. M'ombo.
  20. The UMCA in Malawi, p 126, James Tengatenga, 2010: "Two important pieces of work have been accomplished during these later years. First, the completion by Archdeacon Johnson of the Bible in Chinyanja, and secondly, the completed Chinyanja prayer book in 1908."
  21. Bible Society of Malawi newsletter, 24 February 2016.
  22. Watkins (1937), p. 7.
  23. Wade-Lewis (2005).
  24. Batteen (2005).
  25. Atkins (1950), p.201.
  26. Downing & Mtenje (2017), pp. 228–9.
  27. Downing & Mtenje (2017), p. 95: "A high vowel is very short and not very vowel-like, so inserting one leads to minimal deviation from the pronunciation of the word in the source language."
  28. See Kishindo (2001), p.267.
  29. Atkins (1950), p.200.
  30. Scotton & Orr (1980), p.15; Atkins (1950), p.208.
  31. Downing & Mtenje (2018), p. 43.
  32. Atkins (1950), p.208.
  33. Stevick (1965), p.xii.
  34. Scotton & Orr (1980), p.18.
  35. Atkins (1950), p.207; Stevick et al. (1965), p.xii; Downing & Mtenje (2018), p. 43, quoting Price (1946).
  36. Kishindo (2001), p.268.
  37. See also Chirwa (2008).
  38. Atkins (1950), p.209.
  39. Atkins (1950), p.204.
  40. Downing & Mtenje (2017), p. 99.
  41. Atkins (1950), p.205.
  42. Kishindo (2001), p.270.
  43. The Nation online news in Chichewa; Zodiak Radio online news in Chichewa.
  44. 1 2 Watkins (1937), p.13.
  45. Mchombo (2004), p.10.
  46. Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja (2002).
  47. Mtenje (1986), pp.195; 203–4; 244ff; Mtenje (1987), p.173.
  48. 1 2 Stevick et al. (1965), p.147.
  49. Mchombo (2004), pp.17–18.
  50. Kanerva (1990), p.147.
  51. Hullquist (1988), p.145.
  52. Downing & Mtenje (2017), p. 263.
  53. E.g. Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja.
  54. Paas (2015).
  55. Kunkeyani (2007), p.154.
  56. Paas (2015) s.v.
  57. Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja.
  58. Corbett & Mtenje (1987), p. 10.
  59. Scott & Hetherwick (1929), s.v. Ibsi; Rebmann (1877) s.v. Chiko, Psiwili/Pfiwili; Watkins (1937), p. 37.
  60. Rebmann (1877) s.v. Aya, Mame, Mano, Yonse; cf Goodson (2011).
  61. Rebmann (1877), s.v. Ufa; Watkins (1937), pp. 33–4.
  62. Maxson (2011), pp.39ff, 77ff.
  63. For tones, Mtenje (1986).
  64. Maxson (2011), p.126.
  65. Maxson (2011), p.115.
  66. Salaun, p.49.
  67. Kiso (2012), p.107.
  68. Maxson (2011), pp.19ff.
  69. Hyman & Mtenje (1999a).
  70. Maxson (2011), p.52.
  71. Maxson (2011), p.36.
  72. Salaun, p.16.
  73. Maxson (2011), pp. 21, 23.
  74. Maxson (2011), pp.26ff.
  75. Maxson (2011), p.64.
  76. Downing & Mtenje (2017), pp. 143, 162.
  77. Downing & Mtenje (2017), pp. 142, 145.
  78. Watkins (1937), pp. 55–6.
  79. Maxson (2011), p. 77.
  80. Kiso (2012), pp. 110–111.
  81. Maxson (2011), p. 116.
  82. Mtenje (1986), p. 244ff.
  83. Stevick et al. (1965), p.222.
  84. Mchombo (2004), pp. 17–18.
  85. Salaun, p.70
  86. Kanerva (1990), p.24.
  87. Salaun, p.78.
  88. Hyman & Mtenje (1999b).
  89. "Chafulumira, William". Dictionary of African Christian Biography.
  90. WorldCat list of Ntara's publications
  91. "Whither Vernacular Fiction?". The Nation newspaper May 26, 2017.
  92. "Jolly Maxwell Ntaba". The Nation newspaper April 4, 2014
  93. Williams, E (1998). Investigating bilingual literacy: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia (Education Research Paper No. 24). Department for International Development.
  94. Gray, Lubasi, & Bwalya (2013), p. 11
  95. Gray, Lubasi & Bwalya (2013) p. 16.
  96. Paas (2016).
  97. Phrases from Gray et al. (2013).
  98. Maxson (2011), p. 112.