Chewa, also known as Nyanja, is a language of the Bantu language family. The gender prefix chi- is used for languages, so the language is also known as Chichewa and Chinyanja (spelled Cinyanja in Zambia), and locally Nyasa in Mozambique.
Chewa is the national language of Malawi. It is also one of the seven official African languages of Zambia, where it is spoken mostly in the Eastern Province. It is also spoken in Mozambique, especially in the provinces of Tete and Niassa, as well as in Zimbabwe where, according to some estimates, it ranks as the third-most widely used local language, after Shona and Northern Ndebele. It was one of the 55 languages featured on the Voyager.
An urban variety of Nyanja, sometimes called Town Nyanja, is the lingua franca of the Zambian capital Lusaka and is widely spoken as a second language throughout Zambia. This is a distinctive Nyanja dialect with some features of Nsenga, although the language also incorporates large numbers of English-derived words, as well as showing influence from other Zambian languages such as Bemba. Town Nyanja (Cikabanga) has no official status, and the presence of large numbers of loanwords and colloquial expressions has given rise to the misconception that it is an unstructured mixture of languages or a form of slang.
The fact that the standard Nyanja used in schools differs dramatically from the variety actually spoken in Lusaka has been identified as a barrier to the acquisition of literacy among Zambian children. iSchool.zm, which develops online educational content in Zambian languages, has begun making 'Lusaka Nyanja' available as a separate language of instruction after finding that schoolchildren in Lusaka do not understand standard Nyanja.
Chinyanja has its origin in the Eastern Province of Zambia from the 15th century to the 18th century. The language remained dominant despite the breakup of the empire and the Nguni invasions and was adopted by Christian missionaries at the beginning of the colonial period.
In Zambia, Chewa is spoken by other peoples like the Ngoni and the Kunda, so a more neutral name, Chinyanja "(language) of the lake" (referring to Lake Malawi), is used instead of Chewa.
The first grammar, A grammar of the Chinyanja language as spoken at Lake Nyasa with Chinyanja–English and English–Chinyanja vocabulary, was written by Alexander in 1880 and partial translations of the Bible were made at the end of 19th century. Further early grammars and vocabularies include A vocabulary of English–Chinyanja and Chinyanja–English: as spoken at Likoma, Lake Nyasa and A grammar of Chinyanja, a language spoken in British Central Africa, on and near the shores of Lake Nyasa, by George Henry (1891). The whole Bible was translated by William Percival Johnson and published as Buku Lopatulika ndilo Mau a Mulungu in 1912.
A strong historical link of the Nyanja, Bemba and Yao people to the Shona Empire, who can point their earlier origins to Mashonaland, proves linguistically evident today. The ancient Shonas who temporarily dwelt in Malambo, a place in the DRC, eventually shifted into northern Zambia, and then south and east into the highlands of Malawi.
^The Umca in Malawi, p 126, James Tengatenga, 2010: "Two important pieces of work have been accomplished during these later years. First, the completion by Archdeacon Johnson of the Bible in Chinyanja, and secondly, the completed Chinyanja prayer book in 1908."