Saturday, 2 March 2019

Preface : Introductory Grammar of the Ngoni Language

In 1884 when I was placed among the Ngoni (Abangoni) under Mombera, on the western side of Lake Nyasa, it was understood that they spoke the Kafir language as found in the southern parts of Africa. After a few months of study of that language I found there was a considerable difference between it and that spoken in the Ngoni tribe, both in regards to form and vocabulary, and I was led to look into Zulu, as presented in Colenso's "First Steps in Zulu-Kafir."

From a study of Zulu, as there presented, I was able to understand the variations of the local form of speech, and by the assistance of the late William Koyi, a valued Kaffir member of the mission staff, rapid progress was made, in what, as compared with the other Lake languages, was considered a difficult language.

In the course of my study, in the evenings and during resting hours in the theoretical, and during working hours in the practical, parts of the language, I made out for myself comparative notes of the two tongues. These grew to form a bulky manuscript as my studies were continued. After a time two colleagues were sent to my district, I was called upon to help them to acquire the speech of the Ngoni. I set to work on my own notes, condensing and amending, and gave the results in the following form as aids to my fellow workers in their study of the language.

As aids in acquiring the language they were found to be useful, and they are here put into more permanent form, at the request of the Livingstonia Mission Committee, by whom they are published for the use of the members of the mission.

The following pages merely supply an introduction to the study of the Ngoni tongue, and are not meant to do more than supply the main features of it, further study being possible through one or other of the Zulu grammars which deal more fully with the language, and above all, through practical work among the natives.

Walter Angus Elmslie and his wife
It need only be further said that the Ngoni language is practically a dialect of Zulu, the variations being produced by contact with the tribes speaking other languages and by a recurrence to simpler and possibly more primitive forms. We predict the extinction of the language unless the beneficent rule of Britain brings about a closer union between Northern and Southern Zambesia. It is being supplanted by Tumbuka, the language of the tribe of that name, a greater part of whom are living as slaves of the Ngoni. Meantime, it is necessary to use it in the work of the mission, and wherever possible the forms have been reduced to the Zulu so as to facilitate the introduction of the Zulu publications, if future experience warrants that course.

If it were necessary to dedicate to any one the work here presented, it would be our duty, as well as our pleasure to dedicate it to the memory of the Christian Kafir, the late William Koyi, who was the first missionary to the wild war-loving Ngoni, and who died before he saw the fruit of his devotion to Christ’s work among them, but which has since appeared, and will continue to appear.


ABERDEEN, July 1891.

NOTE: The present version (Year 2019) has been updated to meet the current Zulu writing system. We have also added some new materials to help those learning the language. If you are also interested in the history and culture of the Ngoni visit

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