Nguni languages

Nguni languages
South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe
Linguistic classification: Niger–Congo

The Nguni languages are a group of Bantu languages spoken in southern Africa by the Nguni people. Nguni languages include Xhosa, Zulu, Swati, Hlubi, Phuthi and Ndebele (both Southern Transvaal Ndebele and Northern Ndebele). The appellation "Nguni" derives from the Nguni cattle type. Ngoni (see below) is an older, or a shifted, variant.

It is sometimes argued that use of Nguni as a generic label suggests a historical monolithic unity of the peoples in question, where in fact the situation may have been more complex.[1] The linguistic use of the label (referring to a subgrouping of the Bantu languages) is relatively stable.


Language classification

Proportion of the population that speaks an Nguni language at home.

Density of home-language speakers of Nguni languages.
  <1 /km²
  1–3 /km²
  3–10 /km²
  10–30 /km²
  30–100 /km²
  100–300 /km²
  300–1000 /km²
  1000–3000 /km²
  >3000 /km²

Within a subset of Southern Bantu, the label "Nguni" is used both genetically (in the linguistic sense) and typologically (quite apart from any historical significance that it may accurately or inaccurately imply).

The Nguni languages are closely related, and in many instances different languages are mutually intelligible; in this way, Nguni languages might better be construed as a dialect continuum than as a cluster of separate languages. In scholarly literature on southern African languages, the linguistic classificatory category "Nguni" is traditionally considered to subsume two subgroups: "Zunda Nguni" and "Tekela Nguni." [2][3] This division is based principally on the salient phonological distinction between corresponding coronal consonants: Zunda /z/ and Tekela /t/, but there is a host of additional linguistic variables that enables a relatively straightforward division into these two substreams of Nguni.

Zunda languages

Tekela languages

Comparative data

Compare the following sentences:

English "I like your new sticks"
Zulu Ngi-ya-zi-thanda izi-ntonga z-akho ezin-tsha
Xhosa Ndi-ya-zi-thanda ii-ntonga z-akho ezin-tsha
Southern Ndebele Ngi-ya-zi-thanda iin-ntonga z-akho ezi-tjha
Northern Ndebele Ngi-ya-zi-thanda i-ntonga z-akho ezin-tsha
Hlubi Ng'ya-zi-thanda iin-duku z-akho ezin-sha
Swati Ngi-ya-ti-tsandza ti-ntfonga t-akho letin-sha
Mpapa Phuthi Gi-ya-ti-tshadza ti-tfoga t-akho leti-tjha
Sigxodo Phuthi Gi-ya-ti-tshadza ti-tshoga t-akho leti-tjha

NOTE: Xhosa <tsh> = Phuthi <tjh> = IPA [tʃʰ]; Phuthi <tsh> = [tsh]; Zulu <sh> = IPA [ʃ], but in the environment cited here [ʃ] is "nasally permuted" to [tʃ]. Phuthi <jh> = breathy voiced [dʒʱ] = Xhosa, Zulu <j> (in the environment here following the nasal [n]). Zulu, Swati, Hlubi <ng> = [ŋ].

English "I understand only a little English"
Zulu Ngi-qonda ka-ncane nje isi-Ngisi
Xhosa Ndi-qonda ka-ncinci nje isi-Ngesi
Ndebele Ngi-zwisisa ka-ncani nje isi-Ngisi
Swati Ngi-siva ka-ncane nje si-Ngisi
Mpapa Phuthi Gi-visisa ka-nci të-jhë Si-kguwa
Sigxodo Phuthi Gi-visisa ka-ncinci të-jhë Si-kguwa

NOTE: Phuthi <kg> = IPA [x].


Proto-Nguni is the reconstructed ancestor of the Nguni languages.

See also

  • Ngoni is the ethnonym and language name of a group living in Malawi, who are a geographically distant descendant of South African Nguni. Ngoni separated from all other Nguni languages subsequent to the massive political and social upheaval within southern Africa, the mfecane, lasting until the 1830s.
  • IsiNgqumo is an argot spoken by the homosexuals of South Africa who speak Bantu languages; as opposed to Gayle, the argot spoken by South African homosexuals who speak Germanic languages. IsiNgqumo is based on a Nguni lexicon.



  • Doke, Clement Martyn (1954). The Southern Bantu Languages. Handbook of African Languages.. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Donnelly, Simon (2009). "Aspects of Tone and Voice in Phuthi". Doctoral dissertation (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). 
  • Jordan, Archibald C. (1942). "Some features of the phonetic and grammatical structure of Baca". Masters dissertation (University of Cape Town). 
  • Ownby, Caroline P. (1985). "Early Nguni History: The Linguistic Evidence and Its Correlation with Archeology and Oral Tradition". Doctoral dissertation (University of California, Los Angeles). 
  • Wright, J. (1987). "Politics, ideology, and the invention of the 'nguni'". In Tom Lodge. Resistance and ideology in settler societies. pp. 96–118. 

Further reading

  • Shaw, E. M. and Davison, P. (1973) The Southern Nguni (series: Man in Southern Africa) South African Museum, Cape Town;
  • Ndlovu, Sambulo. 'Comparative Reconstruction of Proto-Nguni Phonology.'

External links

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