Chewa language

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Chichewa, Chinyanja
Native to Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe
Native speakers
12 million (2007)[1]
Latin (Chewa alphabet)
Chewa Braille
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ny
ISO 639-2 nya
ISO 639-3 nya
Glottolog nyan1308[2]
N.30 (N.31, N.121)[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUS-xaa – xag

Chewa, also known as Nyanja, is a language of the Bantu language family. The noun class prefix chi- is used for languages,[4] so the language is also known as Chichewa and Chinyanja (spelled Cinyanja in Zambia, and Cinianja in Mozambique).

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.


Chewa is the national language of Malawi, spoken mostly in the Central and Southern Regions of that country. 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.


Chewa 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.

The name "Chewa" (in the form Chévas) is first recorded by António Gamitto, who at the age of 26 in 1831 was appointed as second-in-command of an expedition from Tete to the court of King Kazembe in what is now Zambia. His route took him through the country of King Undi west of the Dzalanyama mountains, across a corner of present day Malawi and on into Zambia.[5] Later he wrote an account including some ethnographic and linguistic notes and vocabularies. According to Gamitto, the Malawi people (Maraves) were those ruled by King Undi south of the Chambwe stream (not far south of the present border between Mozambique and Zambia), while the Chewa lived north of the Chambwe.[6]

Apart from a few words recorded by Gamitto, the first extensive record of the Chewa language was made by Johannes Rebmann in his Dictionary of the Kiniassa Language, published in 1877 but written in 1853-4. Rebmann was a missionary living near Mombasa in Kenya, and he obtained his information from a Malawian slave, known by the Swahili name Salimini, who had been captured near Senga Bay some ten years earlier.[7] Salimini, who came from a place called Mphande apparently in the Lilongwe region, also noted some differences between his own dialect (which he called Kikamtunda, the language of the plateau) and the Maravi dialect (Kimaravi) spoken further south; for example, the Maravi gave the name mombo to the tree which he himself called kamphoni.[8]

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 Riddel 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[9] and A grammar of Chinyanja, a language spoken in British Central Africa, on and near the shores of Lake Nyasa,[10] by George Henry (1891). The whole Bible was translated into the Likoma Island dialect of Nyanja by William Percival Johnson and published as Chikalakala choyera : ndicho Malangano ya Kale ndi Malangano ya Chapano in 1912.[11]

Another early grammar, concentrating on the Kasungu dialect of Chewa, was Mark Hanna Watkins' A Grammar of Chichewa (1937). This work, the first grammar of an African language to be written by an American, is interesting among other things in that the informant who assisted Watkins (a young black PhD student) in Chicago in 1932 was Kamuzu Banda, who in 1966 was to become the first President of the Republic of Malawi.

The language is changing every day. This is because people are mixing certain words from English with Chichewa.

Grammar and Phonology[edit]

See also: Chichewa tones

The Chewa Verb[edit]

The Chewa verb is made up of various elements as follows:[12]

NEG - SM - NEG - TM - AM - OM - ROOT - EXT - FV - SUFF
  • SM is the subject-marker, which can be:
    • personal e.g. ndi 'I', u 'you', a 'he, she, they', ti 'we', mu you (pl. or polite)
    • impersonal, e.g. chi 'that (maize)', zi 'those things', li 'it' (e.g book, day) etc.
    • locative, i.e. ku 'there', pa 'there (more precise)', mu 'in there'
  • TM is the tense-marker, e.g. na of the Recent Past (e.g. ndi-na-píta 'I went (today)'), ku of the Present Continuous (e.g. ndi-ku-píta 'I am going'), nka of the Remote Past Continuous (e.g. ndi-nká-pítá 'I used to go'), etc.
  • AM are the aspect-markers. There are four possibilities: ma (continuous), ka (go and), dza (come to, or at a future time), and ngo (just), which can be combined. The first three of these can also be used as a tense-marker if there is no other tense-marker present, e.g. ndí-dzá-pita 'I will go', ndi-ma-píta 'I was going'.
  • OM is the object-marker, which can be:
    • personal, e.g. ndi 'me', ku 'you', mu 'him, her', ti 'us', wa 'them' (e.g. nda--ona 'I have seen them'). The polite or plural form of 'you' is made by combining ku and the suffix -ni: nda--ona-ni 'I have seen you (pl.)'.
    • impersonal, e.g. zi 'those things', chi 'it (e.g. maize)', mu 'it (e.g. sugar)' etc.
    • locative, e.g. mu 'inside' (but a locative object is usually converted into a suffix, e.g. nd-a-on-á-mo 'I have seen inside it')
    • reflexive, i.e. dzi 'myself', 'yourself', 'himself, 'herself', 'themselves' etc.
  • ROOT is the verb root itself such as gon- 'sleep' or pit- 'go'.
  • EXT are the extensions, if present, e.g. ir/er (applicative), its/ets (causative or intensive), ik/ek (causative or stative), ul/ol (reversive), uk/ok (reversive intransitive), an (reciprocal), idw/edw (passive). (The forms with i and u are used if the verb root has the vowel a/i/u, otherwise those with e and o are used.) There are also some other less common extensions such as iz/ez (causative) or am (of attitude) which are only used with certain verbs. Extensions can be combined. When an extension is intensive or stative, it usually has a high tone.[13]
  • FV is the final vowel, which is usually -a, but in the Subjunctive or the Past Tense negative -e (e.g. ndí-pit-a 'I will go', but ndi-pit-é 'I should go', sí-ndi-na-pít-e 'I didn't go').
  • SUFF are suffixed elements such as -ko 'there', -di 'indeed', -nso 'also, again', and so on.

(Hyphens are used here for clarity but are not written in the standard orthography.)

Town Nyanja[edit]

Town Nyanja
Native to Zambia
Region Lusaka
Native speakers
(this article does not contain any information regarding the number of speakers)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None

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 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.[14], 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.

Sample phrases[edit]

English Chewa (Malawi) Town Nyanja (Lusaka)
How are you? Muli bwanji? Muli bwanji?
I'm fine Ndili bwino Nili bwino / Nili mushe
Thank you Zikomo Zikomo
Yes Inde Ee
No Ai Iyai
What's your name? Dzina lanu ndindani? Zina yanu ndimwe bandani?
My name is... Dzina langa ndine... Zina yanga ndine...
How many children do you have? Muli ndi ana angati? Muli na bana bangati?
I have two children Ndili ndi ana awiri Nili na bana babili
I want... Ndikufuna... Nifuna...
Food Chakudya Vakudya
Water Madzi Manzi
How much is it? Ndi zingati? Ni zingati?
See you tomorrow Tidzaonana mawa Tizaonana mailo
I love you Ndimakukonda Nikukonda


  1. ^ Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nyanja". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ a b Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ cf. Kiswahili for the Swahili language.
  5. ^ Marwick (1964).
  6. ^ Marwick (1963), p.383.
  7. ^ Rebman (1877), preface.
  8. ^ Goodson (2011).
  9. ^ Woodward, M. E. 1895.
  10. ^ Henry, George. 1891.
  11. ^ 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."
  12. ^ Hyman & Mtenje (1999a), p.95.
  13. ^ Hyman & Mtenje (1999b).
  14. ^ Williams, E (1998). Investigating bilingual literacy: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia (Education Research Paper No. 24). Department for International Development. 


External links[edit]