Saturday, 13 April 2019

Chapter 3 - Ngoni Nouns

continued from Chapter 2: Accentuation, Syllables, Phonetic Changes


In Ngoni and other Bantu languages the noun is the most important part of speech, because upon the form of its initial letters, the forms of pronoun, adjective, verb, &c., depend. The noun is composed of two parts, Prefix and Root (stem), e.g., umu-ntu > umuntu, a person. Now, the prefix umu may be said to stamp its likeness on whatever parts of speech are dependent upon it for government, by means of attaching itself or some characteristic portion of itself to the dependent parts of speech.

In this way the relation of the various words of a sentence to the subject noun is at once established. As there is thus a frequent recurrence of similar letters or syllables in the different words of a sentence, there is an easy and pleasant transition from one word to another. This peculiarity, not met with in European languages, has been termed " The Euphonic or Alliteral Concord." In illustration take the plural form of umuntu which is abantu (= aba ntu), and observe how the characteristic portion (ba) influences the form of the dependent parts of speech in the following sentence: -

Abantu bami abakhulu bamukile, baye kuzingela (Zulu, ukuzingela),
People my great they have left, they have gone to hunt,
kodwa bazakubuya (Zulu, bazobuya) bonke kusasa.
but they will return all tomorrow.

Contrast the above sentence with the following which has for its governing noun, one with a prefix izi: -

Izinkomo zakho zimbili (ezimbili) zangena, zadla, zanyathela, umumbu wami.
Your two cattle entered (and) ate (and) trampled down my maize. (Take note that the Zulu call maize, ummbila)

It will now be evident that a grouping of those nouns which have similar prefixes is necessary to follow out the principle of concord and facilitate its use. This is done in the classification of nouns which may be referred to. Here it may be stated that there are two numbers, singular and plural. Gender does not influence grammatical structure and is denoted by distinct terms for masculine and feminine, or by a terminal = kazi for the feminine.

Note: That there are no indefinite or definite articles in Ngoni and other bantu languages, therefore abantu can mean both, a person or the person.


Nouns are classed according to the form of the prefix. There are two numbers, singular and plural, and these are distinguished by the prefix. So whereas in English, you add a suffix to the noun to form a plural e.g. singular boy, add s and it becomes boys, in Ngoni and other Nguni languages you replace the prefix to form a plural. Thus the plural for "umfana" is formed by replacing the prefix "um" by another prefix "aba". Therefore the plural for "umfana" (mufana, ngonis say it) is "abafana".

Ngoni as compared to English is a little difficult when it comes to the creation of plural nouns because there are many other prefixes that occur. It is very important that you therefore that you master the Ngoni noun classes as upon it depend other parts of the sentence as already pointed out before.

With a lot of practice you will automatically recognise the different Ngoni noun classes by just looking at the beginning part, of the prefix of the noun.

The noun classification system is for all bantu languages, you will therefore discover that some noun classes numbers do not occur in Ngoni. They however occur in other bantu languages.

Please also take note that the the prefix for class 1 and 3 have the same prefix. The reason they are put in different classes is that nouns in class 1 are personal; they refer to persons. Their (class 1) plural is found in class 2


umuntu (person) abantu (persons)

umntwana (child) abantwana (children)

The nouns in class 3 are impersonal and have their plurals in class 4


umfula (river) imifula (rivers)

umkhonto (spear) imikhonto (spears)

Below is a table of Ngoni Noun classes:

Singular              Plural

1 um                   2 aba

1a u                    2a o

3 um                  4 imi

5 i                      6 ama

7 isi                    8 izi

9 in/im               10 izin/izim

11 u Takes the plural in class 10

14 ubu No plural

15 uku No plural

Here are the examples for each noun class

Class 1 (umu-) with plural in class 2(ab(a)-)

The nouns of this class are (1) personal nouns and have the prefix umu or um in the singular, and aba as their prefix in the plural. 

umuntu (person) abantu (persons)
umfana (boy) abafana (boys)
umfazi (woman) abafazi (women)

Some nouns for some ethnic groups are also included in these two classes e.g.

umuThwa (Bushman) abaThwa (Bushmen)
umTswana (a Tswana person) abeTswana (Tswana persons)
umntwana (child) abantwana (children)
umzali (parent) abazali (parents)

Class 1a (u-) with plural in class 2a (o-)

Some nouns which signify family relationship:

ubaba (my father) obaba or bobaba (our fathers)
umama, umame (my mother) omama, omame or bomama (our mothers)
udade (sister) odade or abodade (sisters)

All personal proper nouns:

uZuma (Zuma) oZuma (Zuma and friends)
uSipho (Sipho) oSipho (Sipho and friends)
uThemba (Themba) oThemba (Themba and friends)

Class 3 (um-) with plural in class 4 (imi-) 

umsebenzi (work) imisebenzi (types of work)
umuthi (tree) imithi (trees)
umlayo (law) imilayo (laws)
umoya (wind), imimoya (winds)
umlomo (mouth) imilomo, imiyomo (mouths)
umkhonto (spear) imikhonto (spears)
umzuzu (minute) imizuzu (minutes)
umzimba (body) imizimba (bodies)
umuzi (village, homestead) imizi (villages, homesteads)
umhlane (back) imihlane (backs)
umfula (river) imifula (rivers)
umnyango (doorway) iminyango (doorways)
umlenze (leg) imilenze (legs)
umthwalo (load) imithwalo (loads)

Class 5 (ili-, i-) with plural in class 6 (ama-)

The singular prefix of nouns of this class is ili-, often contracted to i- or li, and the plural prefix is ama-

NOTE 1. —The natives usually put nouns which are the names of things unknown to them, or new to them, into this class, and Europeans will find it good to follow their example • e.g., ibrete, a brick; amabrete, bricks; ibhuku, a book; amabhuku; books.

ilizwi (word) amazwi (words)
ikhaya (home) amakhaya (homes)
ivila (lazy person) amavila (lazy persons)
ihlombe (shoulder) amahlombe (shoulders)
idolo (knee) amadolo (knees)
lizulu (sky, heaven)  amazulu (skies)
lizwe (world, country) amazwe (countries)
lilanga or ilanga (sun, day) amalanga (suns, days)
licansi or icansi (mat) amacansi (mats)
ifu (cloud) amafu (clouds)

There are also some neutral nouns that occur in class 6 that do not have singular forms e.g.

amanzi (water)
amafutha (fat, oil)
amathe (saliva)
amasi (sour milk)
amandla (strength, power, force)
amanga (lie(s))
amakhaza (cold (temperature))

A few Class 2 and Class 9 also have their plural in Class 6 e.g.

inkosi (class 9, chief/king) amakhosi (kings or chiefs)
insimu (class 9, fields) amasimu (fields)
indoda (class 9, man) amadoda (men)
umZulu (class 9, Zulu person) amaZulu (Zulu people)

Class 7 (isi-)with plural in class 8 (izi-)

For nouns of  class 7 the Ngoni use the singular prefix itshi- instead of isi- as in Zulu. I have however decided to use isi- instead of itshi- as I suspect that the itshi- was adopted from non Nguni tribes. The Ngoni also use the plural ivi- like ivihlangu (shields) instead of izihlangu but izi- was still used in the 1890s in a few cases but in the list below I have only used izi-. Please take note of this when speaking to native ngoni speakers as they will use itshi- instead of isi and may hear ivi- instead of izi-

In the ngoni language any noun of another class may be put into this class by prefixing itshi or tshi, and in this way have the idea of greatness attached to it; e.g., umuti, a tree (class 2), but tshimuti, a great tree (class 7).

In this way, greatness is more frequently denoted than by the suffix -kazi as in Zulu, the latter only being retained in a very few words in Ngoni, to denote greatness, or the female sex.

Here are examples  of nouns in these two classes i.e 7 and 8:

isibhamu (gun) izibhamu (guns)
isandla (hand) izandla (hands)
isifuba (chest) izifuba (chests)
isisu (stomach) izisu (stomachs)
isiphongo (forehead) iziphongo (foreheads)
isiphundu (back of the head) iziphundu (backs of the heads)
isithulu (deaf person) izithulu (deaf persons)
isanusi (diviner) izanusi (diviners)
isilonda (wound) izilonda (wounds)

A few abstract nouns also occur in this class e.g.
isono (sin) izono (sins)
isizungu (solitude)

Class 9 (iN-) with plural in class 10 (iziN-)

There are a few variant in this class shown below

Class 9   Class 10
i-              izi-
im-           izim-
in-            izin-

Below are some nouns in the group:

inkomo (head of cattle, cow) izinkomo (heads of cattle, cows)
imbuzi (goat) izimbuzi (goats)
imvubu (hippopotamus) izimvubu
imfene (baboon) izimfene (baboons)
intaba (mountain) izintaba (mountains)
ingwe (leopard) izingwe (leopards)
indlovu (elephant) izindlovu (elephant)
ingwenya (crocodile) izingwenya (crocodiles)
inja (dog) izinja (dogs)
imvula (rain) izimvula (rains)
inyanga (moon) izinyanga (moons)

Below are some nouns in class 9 which find their plurals in class 6 instead of class 10 as the rest of the nouns in class 9 e.g.

inkosi (king) amakhosi (king)
insimu (field) amasimu (fields)
indoda (man) amadoda (men)

There also some neutral variants with a nasal (m, n)

inyosi (bee) izinyosi (bees)
inyama (meat)

Class 11 (ulu-, u-)

The singular prefix in the full form is ulu, but it is frequently contracted to u. The plural prefix appears as izim, izin, or izi. The insertion of m and n is doubtless for the sake of euphony. Some nouns in this class have their plural prefix in ama, class 10. 

uthando (love, from verb stem -thanda, love)
uluthi or uthi (rod) izinti (rods)
ubambo (rib) izimbambo (ribs)
unyawo (foot) izinyawo (feet)
usuku (day) izinsuku (days)
ulimi (tongue) izilimi (tongues)

Class 14 (ubu-)

NOTE. Many of these nouns are in use in Ngoni but in the original Introductory Grammar of the Ngoni language they were put into class 2, because according to the author Walter Angus Elmslie, in Ngoniland where the ubu- is contracted to u the noun becomes one of class 2 by form and concord, b and w being interchangeable; and one may hear wa. or very seldom bwa. 

He further pointed out that :

"In the case of those nouns which retain the prefix ubu, it is found that in most cases the prefix is reckoned as u, and the noun has the concord of class 2. In this respect the Ngoni language corresponds with Tumbuka, Tonga, and Nyanja, and some others. The elder people may be found using a class of nouns with the ubu prefix, and corresponding concord; but those who observe this distinction are so few, and the hold that it has in their language is so slight, as to make it possible to drop it as a class altogether. The younger portion of the people, through contact with the Tumbuka and Tonga slaves, now use b and w as synonymous, and the prefix of abstract nouns now appears to be uwu or u; in the one case changing the b of ubu into w, and in the other using the contracted form of prefix. in both cases the nouns specified are brought into class 2, and are under its concord, as may be gathered from the speech of the people. At the same time, one using the ubu prefix and corresponding concord would he understood, but the consensus of opinion is against its being continued".

Such an arrangement corresponds with the same class of nouns in Tumbuka, &c., as may be seen from the following examples: -

Zulu                                            Ngoni                             Tumbuka

Ubuntu bakhe (his manhood)     Uwuntu wakhe              Uwuntu wake
Ubutshani bakhe(his grass)        Uwutshani wakhe 
Utshwala bakhe(his beer)           Utswala wakhe
Ubukhali bakhe (his anger)        Uwukhali wakhe             Uwukali wake

2019 update: I have ignored this and put the ubu- nouns in their proper class which is class 14:

These are mainly abstract nouns though a few concrete ones do occur.

ubusuku (night)
ubusika (winter)
utshwala (beer) amatshwala (different kinds of beer)
ubuhlungu (pain)
ubuntu (humanity) derived from umuntu (person)
ubukhosi (monarchy) derived from inkosi (king, monarch)
ububi (badness)
ubukhulu (greatness)
ubuhle (beauty)
ubude (length)
ubuthakathi (witchcraft)
uboya (hair)
ubutshani or utshani (grass)
ubuso (face)

Class 15 (uku-)

These nouns are usually referred to as infinitives and serves duo purposes. They serve as verbs but also as verbal nouns.

ukusebenza (to work, working)
ukukhuluma (to talk, talking)
ukufa (to die, death)
ukudla (to eat, eating or food)
ukuyona or ukona (to do wrong, to spoil, to damage, to sin)

Below is a video to help on the prefixes.


There are properly only three cases, viz., Nominative, Vocative, and Locative.

(1) The Nominative and Objective cases of the noun are the same in form and consist of the noun in its entirety—prefix and root.

(2) The Vocative case is formed by dropping the initial vowel of the prefix.


Indoda, a man; ndoda, man!
Umntwana, a child; mntwana, child!

NOTE: - In addressing the Supreme Being by using the English O! you imply some fault in Him, as O! Mlungu is an interjection called forth by some evil. The proper vocative is simply Mlungu! (This is a borrowed word from the Tumbuka or Chewa, the Ngoni also used Umkulumqango).

(3) The Locative case is formed in various ways.

[1] By changing the initial vowel of the prefix into e, and the terminal vowels as follows: -

If a into eni, e.g umfula, a river; emfuleni, in the river.

If e into eni, ilitshe, a stone; elitsheni, on the stone.

If i into ini, e.g. inkosi, a chief; enkosini, to the chief.

If o into weni, e.g. ubuso, a face; ebusweni, at the face.

If u into wini (ini), e.g. indlu, a house; endlini, in the house.

A change also takes place in the consonants b, p, m, and in the combinations, mb, mp, when they occur in the final syllable of the noun. The change is more frequent if the final vowel be o; or more rarely if it be u; and very rarely when it is either a or i. The following are the changes: -

p and mp are changed into sh; e.g. umpupu, flour; empushini, in the flour.

m is changed into ny; e.g., umlomo, a mouth; emlonyeni, in the mouth.

mb is changed into nj; e.g. umhlamba, a marsh; emhlanjeni, in the marsh.

[2] The names of places change the initial vowel into e.


Inyanze (Zulu, ichibi), a lake;

Ngivela enyanze, I come from the Lake.

[3] Names of rivers are usually put in the locative case by prefixing ku and dropping their initial vowel.


Phansi ku Kasitu, down at the Kasitu.

[4] Nouns denoting a particular place, or a particular time, simply to change the initial vowel into e.

EXAMPLE: - ekhaya, at home; emini, at noon; ekhanda, on the head.

[3] The names of districts are preceded by kwa in the locative case; and kwa, followed by the name of a person denotes his country, district, or residence.


Ngivela kwa Hora, I come from about Hera.

Ngiya kwa Mombera, I go to Mombera's place.

Hora Mountain 

As there is properly no possessive case of nouns, the possessive relation is expressed by a combination of particles, the form of which illustrates the principle of concord. The importance and nature of the formation of the substitute for a possessive case lead us to treat of it in a separate chapter.

(4) Diminutive Nouns are formed by adding ana to the root of the noun, and if the final vowel be o or u it is changed into w; and the final consonant or combination of consonants is changed according to the rule given in Chapter III. 4 (3) [1], for the formation of the locative case.


Intaba, a mountain; intatshana (small mountain)

A very common method of forming diminutives is to prefix ka to the root in the singular and to in the plural. This corresponds to a class of Tumbuka nouns and is really adopted from that of the Tonga language, constituting an additional class in Ngoni. It is simple, and useful, and maybe extensively used.


Excepting the nouns which are the names of natural objects, most nouns are derived from some distinct root which may, or may not, be now traceable. Such derived nouns have their character shown by means of the prefix, just as certain nouns in English derived from verbs show it by a suffix: as do, doer; buy, buyer.

Nouns are derived from other nouns, adjectives, and verbs.


a. Abstract nouns. These prefix u, or uwu (for ubu) to the root of the noun to which it is derived.

umu-ntu, a person; uwu-ntu > uwuntu (zulu, ubuntu), humanity.

in-doda, a man; uwu-doda > uwudoda (zulu, ubudoda), manliness.

in-kosi, a chief; uwu-khosi > uwukhosi (Zulu ubukhosi), kingship.


a. Abstract nouns. These prefix u, or uwu, to the root of the adjective.

khulu, great; uwu-khulu (Zulu, ubukhulu), greatness.

mhlophe, white; uwu-mhlophe (Zulu, ubumhlophe), whiteness. This can also mean chastity; innocence; virginity.


a. Personal nouns. These signify the doer and have the prefix of class 1. The final vowel of the verb root is changed into i

uku-hamba > ukuhamba, to walk; um-hambi > umhambi, a walker,

uku-yakha > ukuyakha, to build; um-yakhi > umyakhi, a builder.

But a few have the prefix isi instead of um.

uku-pheka > ukupheka, to cook; isi-pheki > isipheki (Zulu, umpheki), a cook.

uku-hleba > ukuhleba, to slander; isi-hlebi > isihlebi (Zulu, inhlebi), a slanderer.

b. Impersonal nouns. These signify the agent by which the action of the verb is performed. They have the prefix isi, but their terminal vowel is o by which they are distinguished from those with the same prefix noted above.

uku-bopha > ukubopha, to bind; isi-bopho > isibopho, a binder, cord. uku-cela > ukucela, to pray; isi-celo > isicelo, a prayer (the words).

c. Some nouns denoting the instrument of an action are formed by prefixing tsha denoting (which see under possessive case, chap. iv.) to the verb in the objective form, infinitive mood.

uku-khwela > ukukhwela, to climb; tshoku-khwelela, a thing for climbing, a ladder.

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