Monday, 23 November 2020

Some Notes On IsiNgoni v. isiZulu


When the Ngoni left what is now called Zululand there were several dialects that were spoken in that part of South Africa. One of those dialects was the one spoken by the Zulu clan which then was a small clan. The Ngoni and their cousins the Shangaan spoke a dialect found in the Ndwandwe area then under the control of Zwide the archenemy of Shaka Zulu. 

With the defeat of the Ndwandwe, the dialect spoken by Zulu clan gained prominence and the area later came to be known as Zululand too. So that by the time the missionaries came all the dialects and the land had come to be associated with the Zulu clan. So when they heard the language spoken by the Ngoni they called it a form of isiZulu or a dialect of isiZulu. This was definitely not the way things were when the Ngoni left as their language and isiZulu could rightly have both been called dialects of isiNguni.

Last year I had the task of editing and revising an old Ngoni grammar book and Ngoni language translation of the Gospel of Mark and these are my notes on the nuances between the two languages.


One of the things that jump to you when you read the Ngoni translation of the gospel of Mark is in Mark chapter 1:2

Ngoni: bona, ngithuma ithenga lami phambili kwobuso bakho, lona lelo liyakulungisa indlela yakho (Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.KJV)

Zulu: “Bheka, ngiyasithuma isithunywa sami phambi kwakho esiyakulungisa indlela yakho,” (Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.KJV)


Both Ngoni and Zulu use both bona and bheka. They only differ in its employment here and there with the Ngoni preferring bona where the Zulu prefers bheka. You will notice that in the Mzimba Tumbuka language, which is a mismash of Ngoni and Tumbuka, you will stil hear the word Bheka to mean see.


In Ngoni the word for messenger is ithenga while Zulu it is isithunywa. Even among the Tumbuka speaking Ngoni you will still find wide use of ithenga. For example in matters of marriage the one who is sent is called thenga. I am not sure of its origin but I assume that it comes from the old Ndwandwe. I could be wrong as I have failed to find its use in Ndebele another close language to Ngoni.


Here is another major difference between Zulu and Ngoni. Zulu employs the relative clause to represent words like "that" and "who". This time Zulu has used esi- as "who" to represent the isithunywa. Here Ngoni represents this by employment of lona lelo. lona means this for class 5 nouns such as ithenga and lelo means that that for class 5 (ili) nouns. If both Ngoni and Zulu had employed isithunywa to mean messenger the Ngoni would have translated the "who" as sona leso siyakulungisa (who will make straight)


Here there is not much difference as all scholars agree that phambili is a full form of phambi in Nguni languages.


Another difference that you will notice is found in the very first chapter of Mark 1:1

Ukuqala kwelivangeli likaYesu Kristu umtwana kaMkulumqango. (Ngoni) The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

Ukuqala kwevangeli likaJesu Kristu, iNdodana kaNkulunkulu. (Zulu) The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

In the use of nouns Ngoni is closer to isiXhosa than Zulu in that it has present the longer forms of the nouns. For example all scholars will tell you that the original word for heaven, sky in Nguni language was ilizulu. For most Ngoni the call heaven, lizulu but the Zulu have shortened it further to izulu. Therefore in the verse above the Ngoni translated the english world gospel, greek evangelo as ivangeli or livangeli where the zulu and even Xhosa have ivangeli. And use of livangeli affects the translation of "of the gospel" as Ngoni as Kwelivangeli (kwa +(i)livangeli) and Zulu has kwevangeli (kwa + ivangeli). When "a" follows "i" in both Zulu and Ngoni it changes to "e".

Before I end on this one there is a famous Ngoni ingoma which as the sentence zinkomo zakwa Ngwazi (cattle of the Ngwazi(conqueror)). Here you can see the use of zinkomo from the full Nguni word izinkomo. Here the Zulu will nowadays use "inkomo" with as stress on the "i" to differentiate it from inkomo (singular). The Ngoni has no such problems as they already use zinkomo.


The Ngoni have various names for God and UMkulumqango is one of those names. The Zulu use nkulunkulu. All these names were solicited by the European and American missionaries as they tried to find a word for God. Both the Ngoni and the Zulu had a faint idea of God. Their old religion focused on praying to ancestors through the use of zifuyo (animals like cattle, goats for the poor). But you can notice both have mkulu or nkulu great

UMNTWANA VERSUS INDODANA: The Ngoni prefer to use umntwana (child) in almost all cases where they want to mention the word child. They usually don't differentiate between male child (son) and indodakazi (daughter). This is not different from other tribes north of Limpopo that use a variation of mwana (Nyanja for child). The Ngoni would certainly understand indodana a dimunition of indoda (man). But the Ngoni are more likely to use indoda to refer to husband. Such as in the song from the Maseko Ngoni, Indoda ilalephi? Ngiyamufuna (where has my husband slept, I am looking for him). Or among the Mbelwa Ngoni as seen in Mark 10:12: Ngati yena yedwa amukise indoda yakhe, athathe eyinye, uyaphinga (And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.). Ngoni uses ngati for uma (isiZulu).


Because of the dominance of Zulu and the similarities in the two languages most people teach Zulu as Ngoni. The same can be said of the Ndebele where they use Zulu grammar books. This was popularized by the early missionaries who thought it convenient to use Zulu grammar books instead of developing another grammar book for the Ngoni and Ndebele dialects. I should, however, acknowledge the work of Elmslie in preparing the introductory Grammar of the Ngoni Language 1890

I respect those that do that but I would prefer to say lona lelo liyakulungisa than eliyakulungisa (who will straighten). I feel that my ancestors would be happy that way. I would also rather say lizulu than izulu or zinkomo than inkomo for the sake of preserving my ancestors' dialect. But that is me. 

I would rather say Yekelani ukuhamba (Do not go) than Musani ukuhamba. By the way, I noticed in our Amasiko abenguni whatsapp group that some northern Maseko clan relative in northern Zululand still use Yekela or Yekelani.  

As to the assertion that Ngoni and Ndebele have been corrupted, I would say all languages including Zulu have changed over the years. Zulu uses borrowed words such as itafula which is from Afrikaans as Ngoni has borrowed words such as nyaze (sea). There is no language that has remained static.

I am at the moment very busy with other things and I wished I had written a more exhaustive article. So expect more to come as soon as I have more free time. Hopefully, it is soon. I am not a scholar by any stretch of the imagination so feel to correct any mistakes I have made.

Correction From Datu Manzolwandle on the paragaph about Zinkomo.

A bit of correction, differentiation and clarification here,

Izinkomo is cattle in IsiZulu that's the correct way of writing it the only difference is that AmaZulu don't pronounce -zi- when they speak ,so inkomo is a single cow

izinkomo is cattle

That's the correct way of writing IsiZulu.

IsiXhosa is the language that tend to use ii- even in plural form

In singular form they use i-.

You posted an informative article keep teaching

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