Bemba language

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Native toZambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania
EthnicityBemba, Bangweulu Batwa
Native speakers
4.1 million (2000–2010 census)[1]
Latin (Bemba alphabet)
Bemba Braille
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2bem
ISO 639-3bem
Linguasphere99-AUR-r ichiBemba + ichiLamba incl. 24 inner languages 99-AUR-ra...-rx + varieties 99-AUR-rca...-rsb
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
A speaker of the Bemba, recorded in Zambia.
PeopleBaBemba, Awemba, BaWemba

The Bemba language, ChiBemba (also Cibemba, Ichibemba, Icibemba and Chiwemba), is a Bantu language spoken primarily in north-eastern Zambia by the Bemba people and as a lingua franca by about 18 related ethnic groups.


Bemba is one of the spoken languages in Zambia, spoken by many people who live in urban areas, and is one of Zambia's seven recognized regional languages. Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, though Malawian by descent, was raised in a Bemba-speaking community, and two of the four Zambian presidents since have been Bemba-speakers. The third president, Levy Mwanawasa, was a Lenje, from the Copperbelt Province who belong to the Bantu Botatwe (“three people”) ethnic grouping that comprises the Tonga-Lenje-Ila peoples. The Fourth President, Rupiah Bwezani Banda was a Chewa from the Eastern Province. In the years after the MMD took power in 1991, it was accused numerous times of promoting Bemba over other regional languages in the country.[3] Although the lingua franca of the Zambian capital Lusaka is a dialect of Bantu Botatwe.


Bemba has several dialects, many being varieties of Bemba spoken by other tribes which have historically fallen under Bemba influence.[4] They include Chishinga, Lomotwa, Ngoma, Nwesi, Lala, Kabende, Luunda, Mukulu, Ng’umbo, and Unga, which is spoken by Twa pygmies and sometimes considered a separate language (Nurse 2003). The Twa of Bangweulu speak another dialect of Bemba.

Phonology and orthography[edit]

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
plain p t t͡ʃ k
prenasal voiceless ᵐp ⁿt ⁿt͡ʃ ᵑk
voiced ᵐb ⁿd ⁿd͡ʒ ᵑɡ
Fricative plain voiceless f s ʃ
voiced β
prenasal ᶬf ⁿs ⁿʃ
Lateral l
Approximant (β) j w
Front Central Back
short long short long short long
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

The orthographical system in common use, originally introduced by Edward Steere, is quite phonetic. Its letters, with their approximate phonetic values, are given below.

Letter: A B C/Ch D E F G I J K L M N Ng' Ny O P S Sh T U W Y
Value:[6] a b, β d e f ɡ i k l m n ŋ ɲ o p s ʃ t u w j

It has become increasingly common to use 'c' in place of 'ch'. In common with other Bantu languages, as affixes are added, combinations of vowels may contract and consonants may change. For example, 'aa' changes to a long 'a', 'ae' and 'ai' change to 'e', and 'ao' and 'au' change to 'o' (in other cases, a 'y' is often used to separate other combinations of vowels). The nasal 'n' changes to 'm' before 'b' or 'p', and is pronounced ŋ before 'k' or 'g'; after 'n', 'l' changes to 'd'. These rules will all be implicit in the tables given below.

Like many Bantu languages, Bemba is tonal, with two tones; however, tone has limited effect on meaning as the number of words that would otherwise be confused is small. Stress tends to fall on the prefix, when it exists, and can lead to subtle differences of meaning (see the verb forms below).


Many of the main features of Bemba grammar are fairly typical of Bantu languages: it is agglutinative, depends mainly on prefixes, has a system of several noun classes, a large set of verbal aspects and tenses, very few actual adjectives, and, like English, has a word order that is subject-verb-object. Most of the classification here is taken from that given by Schoeffer, Sheane and Cornwallis.[7]


Bemba nouns are divided into several partially-semantic classes. They are indicated by their prefixes and are generally similar but not always identical to the concord prefixes, attached to verbs they govern, adjectives qualifying them, and pronouns standing for them. By one convention, based on the plural, they are arranged as follows (most alternate forms are caused by phonetic considerations):

Class Singular prefix Concord prefix (singular) Plural prefix Concord prefix (plural) Notes
1 mu-, mw-, m- a (verbs), mu (adjectives), u/w (pronouns) ba- ba- persons, and several inanimate nouns
2 mu- u- (sometimes mu- for adjectives) mi- i- (sometimes mi- for adjectives) generally inanimate nouns, and most trees and fruit
3 n-, lu- i (sometimes n- for adjectives), lu- n- shi- generally not human nouns
4 chi-/ch- (ichi-) chi-/ch- fi-/fy-/f- (ifi-) fi-/fy-/f- augmentatives, kinds, languages
5 li-, ku-, bu-, lu- same as noun prefix ma- ya- (sometimes ma- for adjectives) Plural can be used for singulars of class 3 to emphasise larger number or size
6 ka- ka tu- tu- diminutives
7 bu- bu- none none abstract nouns
8 ku- ku- none none infinitives
9 ku-, mu-, pa- same as noun prefix not strictly a noun class (see below)

The prefixes in class 9 essentially indicate case: 'ku-' corresponds to 'to' or 'from', 'mu-' to 'in', 'into', or 'out of', and 'pa-' to 'at'.


As is common in Bantu languages, adjectives follow the words they qualify, and take the adjectival concord prefixes, but there are not many of them in the strictest sense. Adverbs, relative clauses, or 'descriptors', often fulfil their function instead. Descriptors are placed after the noun, with the particle '-a', and the relevant pronoun prefix between them: chintu cha nomba, 'new thing'.


The numbers from 1 to 10 are:

English: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Bemba: -mo -bili -tatu -ne -sano -mutanda -cine lubali -cine konse konse -pabula -ikumi

The numerals 1-5 take adjectival concord prefixes (except for class 1 singular: muntu umo, 'one person'). The numerals 6-10 are left unchanged. 'Ikumi' has the plural 'makumi', which can be used as a noun with 'na' (and, with) to form all numbers up to 99: for example, makumi yatatu na pabula, 'thirty nine'. 100 is 'mwanda', with plural 'myanda'.


The class-independent personal pronouns are: 'ine' (1st person sg.), 'iwe' (2nd person sg.), 'ifwe' (1st person pl.), 'imwe' (2nd person pl.). These are absolute, in the sense that they stand alone, and cannot appear as subjects or objects as they are. There are separate possessive pronouns, and the third person pronouns depend on class. There are also demonstrative pronouns, divided both by class and into three kinds by deixis ('this one, that one, and that one over there'), and relative pronouns are formed from these.


Verbs have simple forms, usually ending in '-a' (everything before the 'a' being the 'stem', 'root' or 'radical'), and are agglutinated according to person, number and class of subject and object, tense, mood, voice, aspect and whether they are affirmative or negative. Further, their stems change to indicate various other shades of meaning. The following rules can all be combined in a mostly straightforward manner, Bemba being agglutinative and not inflective, but there are still some exceptions.

Subject and object prefixes[edit]

The subject and object prefixes for the personal pronouns are given below. These can vary slightly according to mood, and the subject prefixes change for negative verbs. Where they are different, object prefixes are given in brackets.

Affirmative Negative
1st person singular n- nshi-, shi-
plural tu- tatu-
2nd person singular u- (ku-) tau-
plural mu- tamu-
3rd person singular a- (mu-) taa-, ta-
plural ba- taba-

The subject prefix is placed first, and then the object prefix. When the subject or object is a specific noun in a given class, the verbal concord prefix of this class is used, and the negative form adds the prefix 'ta-' before this.

Tenses and Aspects[edit]

The classification given here is that presented by Schoeffer.

Some of these require a modified stem, changing final 'a' to 'ile' if the preceding vowel is 'a', 'i' or 'u', and to 'ele' if it is 'e' or 'o', or, if the last consonant is nasal, changing the 'a' to 'ine' or 'ene' accordingly. There are irregularities in several verbs.

The tense prefixes are given below. They come after the subject and object prefixes, and before the verb stem, except for the recent, completed or historic past in 'na-', which appears at the very beginning. Stress is marked with an acute (´) accent.

Tense/aspect Prefix Stem Notes
Present continuative le unmodified Used for verbs of action to indicate a progressive action; can be used adjectivally, and even as an immediate future (especially when used with verbs of state).
Present definite a unmodified Used for verbs of state, and intransitive verbs
Stative, necessary habitual Ordinary form; no prefix unmodified Indicates a state that is always true, or a habitual action; connotes necessity of the action
Voluntary habitual la unmodified For habitual actions, connoting that they are voluntary, or may otherwise not be necessary; used only for verbs of state; can be used in subordinate clauses
Immediate past a unmodified For actions occurring 'today', or 'nowadays'
Recent, completed or historic past na- (prefix) unmodified For actions completed today; can be used in a historic sense, but does not emphasise a distant past
Specific past (no prefix) modified Also used for actions done 'today' or 'nowadays', but emphasising more distance in time than the previous two; used in relative clauses
Simple past of yesterday (1) ali unmodified The stress must not be on the 'a' of the prefix
Simple past of yesterday (2) a modified The stress must not be on the prefix
Remote past simple á modified
Remote past of duration ali modified For remote actions whose effects are still present, or for states established in the remote past which have not changed
Remote past definite, past perfect áli unmodified A remote past further distant than some other relevant time
Past imperfect or habitual ale unmodified Used for actions once, but no longer, habitual
Immediate future ala unmodified
Immediate progressive or habitual future akula unmodified
Proximal future le unmodified For future states and conditions to be established shortly, but not necessarily immediately
Future indefinite ka unmodified For actions and states at some unknown time in the future
Future indefinite habitual kala unmodified For habitual actions and states at some unknown time in the future


The moods correspond closely to the Bantu norms.


The simple singular imperative is identical to the 'dictionary' form of the verb consisting of the stem and the suffix '-a', changing to an '-e' if an object prefix is used - there is no subject prefix. The simple plural imperative changes '-a' to '-eni'. Prefixing 'aku-' or 'uka-', adds a sense of instruction to resume or continue an action. An emphatic form can be given by using the subject pronoun prefix (generally of class 1) and following this by the prefix '-inda-'.


The subjunctive is used hypothetically, as an indirect imperative, in exhortations, and in subordinate clauses, similarly but not identically to the subjunctive of many European languages. The common feature is a change of the final '-a' of the verb to '-e'. Its forms are given below. Here V stands for the verb stem, and P for any pronoun prefixes. The usual phonological rules apply.

Tense/aspect Prefix Notes
Simple present P-V-e Used for the present and for verbs for which time is not specified
Present of movement ka-P-V-e Expresses a change in position, state or mental attitude
Present of insistence, exhortative na-P-V-e Similar to a first-person plural imperative
Future immediate P-le-V-a Same as the indicative
Future immediate of insistence na-P-le-V-a Also used as an exhortative, or indirect imperative; can take plural in -eni when used imperatively
Future remote momentary P-ka-V-e Used for a single action in the remote future
Future remote continuous P-kale-V-a Used for a progressive or habitual action in the remote future
Future remote of insistence shina-P-V-e Used as an indirect imperative for some unknown remote future time

The infinitive, strictly a verbal noun, has two forms. The simple form has prefix 'ku-' added to the simple form, as mentioned above, and the habitual infinitive has prefix 'kula-'.


The passive is formed by placing the suffix '-w-' before the last vowel of the verb, but it is not frequently used. A 'neutral' voice can be formed by using '-ik-' instead if the preceding vowel is a, i or u, and '-ek-' if the preceding vowel is e or o. This form is differs in meaning from the passive in that it emphasises the state resulting from an action rather than the action itself (cf. English 'the pot is broken', as opposed to 'the ball is kicked').


Generally, the indicative prefixes 'ta-' to the subject prefix except for the first person singular which changes to 'nshi' or 'shi'. Generally, the subjunctive adds 'i' after the pronoun prefixes and in most cases changes a final 'e' to 'a'. The infinitive occasionally uses the negative 'te'. However, the precise rules are more complex, and the forms depend more finely on tense, aspect and mood. When the negative is used with the imperfect 'le', it is often in the sense of action not yet done, and is referred to by Schoeffer as a separate 'deferred tense'.

Other forms[edit]

There are several other verb forms which change the stem by adding an extra syllable before the final 'a'. These are given below.

Tense/aspect Form Notes
Applied The modified stem, with 'a' (instead of 'e' for the specific past). Used to make an object indirect, usually translated by adding a preposition like 'for' after the verb
Completive Doubles vowel-consonant pair of the applied stem (e.g., fikila becomes fikilila, from fika, 'to arrive') Expresses completion or finality of an action
Reciprocal V-na (or V-nya if V ends in y) Expressing actions done to 'each other'
Causative Softens the last consonant accordingly: 'ba', 'pa' to 'fya'; 'nda', 'ka' 'la', 'sa', 'ta', to 'shya' or 'ishya', 'ushya'; adds 'y' before the 'a' of 'ema', 'ima', 'uma', 'ana'; adds 'ik' before the 'a' of 'ala', 'ama', 'ana' Several exceptions exist; 'ishya' and 'ushya' is particularly common for verbs of colour
Intensive Changes 'a' to 'ishya' if preceding vowel is 'a', 'i', 'u'; changes 'a' to 'eshya' if 'e', 'o' Adds emphasis or a sense of energy to the verb
Reversive Changes 'a' to 'ula' or 'ulula' if preceding vowel is 'a', 'i', 'u'; changes 'a' to 'ola' or 'olola' if 'e', 'o' Expresses a reversal of an action (cf. English 'do', 'undo')
Frequentative Changes 'a' to 'ula' Expresses frequent repetition of an action; translatable by the adverb 'repeatedly'
Reflexive Prefixes 'i' to the verb stem Expresses doing 'to oneself'

There are also several compound tenses, many using the copula 'kuli' and 'kuba'.


These are used to introduce coordinating or subordinate clauses, similarly to their use in English.

Basic phrases[edit]

  • ee - yes
  • awe - no
  • Uli shani? - how are you (informal)
  • Muli shani? - how are you (formal)
  • Shaleenipo - goodbye
  • Ishina lyandi ni... - My name is...
  • umuntu - person
  • umunandi - friend
  • umwana - child
  • iciBemba - the Bemba language
  • na - and, with
  • nga - like, as
  • suma (adj.) - good/beautiful
  • onse (adj.) - all
  • uluceelo (adj) - morning
  • Natotela - Thank you
  • Saana - A lot
  • Natotela saana - Thanks a lot


There is a sizeable amount of literature in Bemba. There are narratives, poems and plays. Some of the notable writers in Bemba include Stephen Mpashi, Chongo Kasonkomona, Chishimba, Paul Mushindo, Bwalya Chilangwa, Mwila Launshi and Kambole.

A lot of the novels and narratives in Bemba were written between the period 1950 and 1980. Recently, very few creative works are published in Zambia mainly due to two reasons: the readership is generally poor and secondly, because of the first reason, publishers tend to hesitate to publish creative works in Bemba, especially novels of substantial length, for financial reasons due to the likely low levels of readership and thus profit. Instead, there are many short stories and novellas in Bemba literature.

Despite these hiccups, such as poor readership and lack of publishing, the quality of the works that are published in Bemba is often high. Moreover, there seem to be many talented writers who would like to write in this language but could not because of the reasons that have been given above and others[clarification needed] that are related.

In terms of literary criticism, a lot of the works in Bemba have not been reviewed and critiqued. This is because there are very few literary critics in Bemba, though the interest is slowly growing. Some of these include Lutato and Shadreck Kondala,[8] among others. Classic Bemba books include Uwauma Nafyala, Pano Calo and Imilimo ya bena Kale.

Sample text[edit]

Abantu bonse bafyalwa abalubuka nokulingana mu mucinshi nensambu. Balikwata amano nokutontonkanya, eico bafwile ukulacita ifintu ku banabo mu mutima wa bwananyina.


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Hamann, Silke and Kula, Nancy C. (2015). "Bemba". Illustrations of the IPA. Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 45 (1): 61–69. doi:10.1017/S0025100314000371{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link), with supplementary sound recordings.

  • Posner, Daniel N. (2003). "The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Cleavages: The Case of Linguistic Divisions in Zambia". Comparative Politics. 35 (2): 127–146.


  1. ^ Bemba at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  3. ^ "UNHCR | Refworld | Chronology for Bemba in Zambia",,463af2212,469f2faa2,469f38f7c,0.html. Retrieved 3 August 2011.
  4. ^ NALRC. "Bemba language & culture" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-08-08.
  5. ^ a b Hamann, Silke; Kula, Nancy C. (2015). Bemba. Journal of the International Phonetic Association.
  6. ^ Debra Spitulnik Vidali and Mubanga E. Kashoki (2014). "Bemba Phonology". Bemba Online Project. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  7. ^ Schoeffer, West Sheane, J.H.; Madan, Arthur Cornwallis (1907). "A Grammar of the Bemba Language as Spoken in North-east Rhodesia". Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  8. ^ Shadreck Kondala. 2013. Nature of Plots in Bemba Novels: The Case of Chilangwa’s "Sheli Wa Citatu", Kasonkomona’s "Ubuseko Mu Bulanda", and Launshi’s "Ukutangila Tekufika". Online access Archived 2018-08-02 at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]