Saturday, 5 October 2019

Ngoni Language

The Ngoni language is the language of the Ngoni people found in Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi. It is part of the Nguni group of languages. Nguni languages include IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, IsiNdebele, and IsiSwati. These languages are mutually intelligible.

Ngoni people left what is now Zululand in the 1820s due to the Shaka Zulu wars. The Ngoni group under Zwangendaba was originally allied to Zwide an arch-enemy of Shaka. They left soon after Zwide's defeat.

Soon after Zwangendaba's death in 1848 at Mapupo, near Ufipa, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) his group split into various groups. They are now found in Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia.

The Maseko Ngoni left Zululand as a separate group and finally settled in southern Malawi where they subdued the peaceful Ntumba people. 

Is the Ngoni language a dialect of isiZulu?

In any language, there are always differences in speech that exist between various groups of people. The difference may be on the use of different sounds and tones and sometimes even words used to express the same thing. 

However, if these groups can still understand one another then these differences are referred to as dialectal differences. As soon as those differences are of a nature that they can no longer communicate then they are speaking different languages.

Ngoni and isiZulu are definitely mutually intelligible languages with so many common words but have differences too. 

Having said this one has to bear in mind that that Ngoni left what is now Zululand there were at least three dialects of what should be correctly rendered as Nguni language. IsiZulu was just one of those dialects.

IsiZulu as dialect came to prominence due to the rise of Shaka Zulu who demanded that his dialect should be the one used at his court. The other people were compelled to adopt this dialect. All this happened after the Ngoni had already left.

Even to this day, there are still dialects that differ from the standardized isiZulu that we see in grammar books.

Some Differences Between IsiZulu and isiNgoni?

One of the obvious differences between isiZulu and isiNgoni is found in the use of  "ŵ" in place of "b" words such as baba (father). The Zwangendaba ngoni will say ŵaŵa (father). They will also emhlaŵeni (in the world) instead of emhlabeni (in the world). Indaŵa in place of indaba (story, affair, matter). You however still hear "b" in words like -biza (call).

If you go to the Maseko Ngoni you are most likely to hear "w" without the accent. Thus the Maseko Ngoni wawa and not ŵaŵa. The Maseko Ngoni live in the area of Malawi where people don't use the accented w. The accented ŵ is used mainly in areas in the north and some districts in the central region of Malawi.

I am not sure whether the ngoni use of w has been with them ever since they left Zululand or if it is because of the influence of tribes that they incorporated in their match upwards. This is something that our scholars may have to study.

Another difference between Zulu and Ngoni is found in "tsh" (which is rendered "ch" in the writing adopted for Nyanja, Bemba and other languages spoken in Malawi). For the purposes of the Ngoni language, we usually adopt the writing system adopted for other Nguni languages down South.

The Ngoni, therefore, say ngitsho, I say, where the Zulu, say ngisho. Where the Zulu say isibaya (fold, cattle kraal) the ngoni say itshiŵaya. 

Zulu noun class "isi-" is therefore rendered itshi- in ngoni. Thus in Ngoni, we say, itshibhamu (gun) instead of isiZulu, isibhamu. Itshandla (hand) instead of isandla. 

The use of itshi where the isiZulu uses isi- could be a dialectal difference as tsh is found in other Nguni languages. I would, therefore, think that we are better off keeping it other than try to change to match it to Zulu.

I made a similar mistake when I was editing the Introductory Grammar of the Ngoni Language as Spoken in Mombera's country. I edited out the itshi and instead replace it with isi-. I also changed the tsh found in ngitsho to ngisho. This was a mistake and I intend to correct it once I find the time.

I believe that we have to be proud of our own language or dialect. Let's treasure the uniqueness of the Ngoni language and promote change where there has been an adoption of non-Nguni languages.

There are other prefixes, such as plural prefix ivi- which is used in most places as the plural for the itshi=isi in Zulu, which is obviously adopted from non-nguni languages.  Thus the Ngoni would say ivibhamu instead of izibhamu. 

The izi- noun class prefix is used in Ngoni but only in a few cases. Ngoni tend to use ivi- more than izi-

Another major difference that you will find is the loss of clicks. This is more a case of the adopted people struggling with clicks and substituting the clicks with various combinations of consonants.

Thus you find the Ngoni pronounce Ngoni names such as Qabaniso as Kabaniso. Thus replacing the q click with k.

As WA Elmslie pointed out in the Introductory Grammar of the Ngoni, only the older Ngoni people in the 1890s used all the clicks that are found in the Zulu language. He observed that "the clicks are not destined to survive among the Ngoni".  

His prediction has really come true as the Ngoni language which is only spoken in a few villages in Mzimba Malawi has lost most of these clicks.

The other difference which is more a result of interaction with other non-Nguni tribes is the adoption of pronouns such as ni (I) in place of ngi-, ti- (we) in place of si-, mwena (you, plural). These are clearly adopted from Tumbuka and Nsenga as the missionaries found that the older Ngoni used the pronouns that are still used in Zululand.

These are just a few of the differences I could think of at this time. 

State of the Ngoni Language Among the Ngoni in Southern Malawi.

The Maseko Ngoni no longer speak the Ngoni language that was spoken among them when the early Church of Scotland missionaries visited them in the early 1870s. They have now adopted the Chewa language of their subjects the Ntumba.

Due to the fact that the Ntumba were a very peaceful people, the Ngoni appear to have left them to their own devices when they controlled the area. Thus the Ngoni state there was more a centralized state with the main body in one place. 

From the documents, I have studied the Ngoni there made no effort to force the Ntumba to adopt the Ngoni language. Therefore there is no evidence that shows that the Ngoni was widely used at any point in their history there.

Even when the Scottish missionaries from Cape Maclear visited the Ngoni in 1870 they found the elders still speaking the Ngoni language but the young men among them were mostly using the Nyanja language. 

William Koyi was however impressed by the Ngoni language spoken there that he remarked that they had maintained all the clicks found in Zululand. This could be because he spoke to the second generation of the Ngoni that had left Zululand and in some cases, ngoni's who were still children when they left Zululand.

By the 1890s Ngoni language appeared to have disappeared even among the indunas as they were more comfortable speaking Chichewa or Nyanja. One of the British army soldiers who fought in the war against the Ngoni is reported to have remarked that among the captured Ngoni leaders he heard no Ngoni language.

It is because of such a poor state of the Ngoni language that made some British missionaries and explorers to suggest that the Ngoni of southern were actually not really Ngoni. This obviously not true and was made by people with only a superficial knowledge of the Ngoni.

Subsequent visits by serious anthropologists such as Margaret Read in the 1930 and 1950s found evidence of Ngoni songs that are clearly Nguni. She also managed to record some Ngoni praises which we still have to this day.

The State of the Ngoni Language Among the Mpezeni Ngoni.

Just like the Maseko Ngoni, the Mpezeni Ngoni also struggled to maintain the Ngoni language. All the historical documents that I have had a chance to read show that the Ngoni language was mainly confined to the older Ngoni. The youth in the war regiments mainly spoke Nsenga. 

There appears to have been little effort to force the subject people to adopt the Ngoni language. It was, therefore, a matter of time before the language was to die out.

I should, however, point out that from my brief visit to Chipata I can state that the Nsenga language spoken there has more Nguni words than the Ngoni spoken in my fatherland, Ntcheu. 

I have a friend who grew up there and she is able to pick up Nguni words such as lala (sleep), dala and others. 

The State of the Ngoni  Language Among the Ngoni in Tanzania.

The Ngoni in Songea, Tanzania speak a language which they call Ngoni but is more of a merging of surrounding peoples' language rather than the old Ngoni language. 

I have a friend from Songea who has a blog in Ngoni and I can honestly say I have struggled to find any Nguni words in their language.

The Ngoni found in Songea are made up of both groups of the Ngoni. You will, therefore, found there clan names such as Maseko and Jele. This is because one splinter group of Zwangendaba's group joined the Maseko Ngoni who were then settled in Songea. Later the Zwangendaba Ngoni rebelled against the Maseko Ngoni and drove them out.

The State of the Ngoni Language Among the Mmbelwa Ngoni

The only group of the Ngoni that managed to have the subject people adopt the Ngoni language is the Mmbelwa Ngoni. This could be because their kingdom was more of a federation run by the sons of Zwangendaba.

There were more spread out and more in control than any control you can ever find among the Mpezeni and Maseko Ngoni.

All the missionaries and British explorers who visited the area before the 1890s reported that almost everyone there spoke the Ngoni language. The only weakness was that the subject people while they spoke the Ngoni language still maintained their own language, Tumbuka.

There was, therefore, a battle of two languages and eventually, the Tumbuka language prevailed such that in the early 1890s even the missionaries could see that Ngoni language was dying out.

The Ngoni language is however still spoken in a few villages in Mpherembe's area and Edingeni (?).

Because of the widespread nature of the Ngoni language before its demise in most parts there, the Tumbuka language spoken there is more a joining together of Tumbuka and Ngoni other than just pure Tumbuka.

My mother comes from there so I know that among all the Ngoni groups the Mmbelwa Ngoni's who no longer speak Ngoni still have more Nguni words in their language than other Ngoni groups.  You can pick Ngoni words in almost every paragraph when they speak.

I would imagine that it would be easy to resurrect the Ngoni language there than in other Ngoni language areas. There have after all a few areas where the Ngoni language is still spoken.

It is just a question of studying the language and taking out some Nsenga and Tumbuka influences that I have already mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Ngoni Language Lessons.

For those interested in learning the Ngoni language below are links to some lessons that will help you on your way to learning it.

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