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Nguni languages

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Title: Nguni languages  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Phuthi language, Swazi language, Ubuntu (philosophy), Xhosa language, Zulu language
Collection: Languages of South Africa, Languages of Swaziland, Languages of Zimbabwe, Nguni Languages
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Nguni languages

South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe
Linguistic classification: Niger–Congo
Glottolog: ngun1267[1]

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, Bhaca, Lala, Nhlangwini and the three languages called Ndebele: Southern Transvaal Ndebele, Northern Ndebele and Sumayela Ndebele (the latter sometimes also being referred to as "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.[2] The linguistic use of the label (referring to a subgrouping of the Bantu languages) is relatively stable.


  • Classification 1
    • Zunda languages 1.1
    • Tekela languages 1.2
  • Comparative data 2
  • Proto-Nguni 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
    • Bibliography 5.1
    • Further reading 5.2


Proportion of the population that speaks an Nguni language at home.
Density of home-language speakers of Nguni languages.

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).

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. On more than one occasion, proposals have been put forward to create a unified Nguni language.[3][4]

In scholarly literature on southern African languages, the linguistic classificatory category "Nguni" is traditionally considered to subsume two subgroups: "Zunda Nguni" and "Tekela Nguni."[5][6] This division is based principally on the salient phonological distinction between corresponding coronal consonants: Zunda /z/ and Tekela /t/ (thus the native form of the name Swati and the better-known Zulu form Swazi), 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

Maho (2009) also lists S401 Old Mfengu

Comparative data

Compare the following sentences:

English "I like your new sticks"
Zulu Ngiyazithanda izinduku zakho ezintsha
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
Swazi 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, Swazi, Hlubi ng = [ŋ].

English "I understand only a little English"
Zulu Ngisizwa kancane isingisi
Xhosa Ndi-qonda ka-ncinci nje isi-Ngesi
Northern/Southern Ndebele Ngi-zwisisa ka-ncani nje isi-Ngisi
Swazi 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.


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nguni (S.40)".  
  2. ^ Wright 1987.
  3. ^ Eric P. Louw (1992). "Language and National Unity in a Post-Apartheid South Africa" (PDF). Critical Arts. 
  4. ^ Neville Alexander (1989). "Language Policy and National Unity in South Africa/Azania". 
  5. ^ Doke 1954.
  6. ^ Ownby 1985.
  7. ^ Donnelly 2009, p. 1-61.
  8. ^ Jordan 1942.
  9. ^ "Isizwe SamaHlubi: Submission to the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims: Draft 1" (PDF). July 2004. Retrieved 28 July 2011. 


  • 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 ( 
  • Ownby, Caroline P. (1985). "Early Nguni History: The Linguistic Evidence and Its Correlation with Archeology and Oral Tradition". Doctoral dissertation ( 
  • 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'
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