Nguni languages

South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe
Linguistic classification:


  • Zunda languages
  • Tekela languages
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, Zimbabwean Ndebele and Sumayela Ndebele (the last two sometimes 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 Bantu) is relatively stable.


Proportion of the population that speaks an Nguni language at home.
Density of home-language speakers of Nguni languages.
  <1 /km²
  1–3 /km²
  3–10 /km²
  10–30 /km²
  30–100 /km²
  100–300 /km²
  300–1000 /km²
  1000–3000 /km²
  >3000 /km²

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
Northern Ndebele Ngi-zwisisa ka-ncani nje isi-Khiwa
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.

Writing System

The sintu writing system, Isibheqe Sohlamvu (also known in Sotho as Ditema tsa Dinoko), for Southern Bantu languages, is used to represent all Nguni languages consistently under one orthography.[10] This includes Tekela languages, which, with the exception of Swati, are unstandardised in the Latin alphabet. For example, it contains a specific grapheme indicating vowel nasality – a feature which only occurs phonemically in Tekela languages:

English down/below
Zunda phansi
Tekela phãsi

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Nguni (S.40)". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  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.
  10. (2015). "Isibheqe Sohlamvu/Ditema tsa Dinoko".


Further reading

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