Tumbuka language

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Native toMalawi, Tanzania, Zambia
Native speakers
1,546,000 (2009-2010)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2tum
ISO 639-3tum
Linguasphere99-AUS-wc (+ chi-Kamanga) incl. varieties 99-AUS-wca...-wcl

The Tumbuka language is a Bantu language which is spoken in the Northern Region of Malawi and also in the Lundazi district of Zambia.[4] It is also known as Chitumbuka or Citumbuka — the chi- prefix in front of Tumbuka means "the language of the", and is understood in this case to mean "the language of (the Tumbuka people)". Tumbuka belongs to the same language group (Guthrie Zone N) as Chewa and Sena.[5]

The World Almanac (1998) estimates that there are approximately 2,000,000 Tumbuka speakers, though other sources estimate a much smaller number. The majority of Tumbuka speakers are said to live in Malawi.[4] Tumbuka is the most widely spoken of the languages of Northern Malawi, especially in the Rumphi, Mzuzu, and Mzimba districts.[6]

There are substantial differences between the form of Tumbuka spoken in urban areas of Malawi (which borrows some words from Swahili and Chewa) and the "village" or "deep" Tumbuka spoken in villages. The Rumphi variant is often regarded as the most "linguistically pure", and is sometimes called "real Tumbuka".[7] The Mzimba dialect has been strongly influenced by Zulu (chiNgoni),[8] even so far as to have clicks in words like chitha [ʇʰitʰa] "urinate", which do not occur in other dialects.

The Tumbuka language suffered during the rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, since in 1968 as a result of his one-nation, one-language policy it lost its status as an official language in Malawi. As a result, Tumbuka was removed from the school curriculum, the national radio, and the print media.[9] With the advent of multi-party democracy in 1994, Tumbuka programmes were started again on the radio, but the number of books and other publications in Tumbuka remains low.[10]


Two systems of writing Tumbuka are in use: the traditional spelling (used for example in the Chitumbuka version of Wikipedia and in the newspaper Fuko), in which words such as banthu 'people' and chaka 'year' are written with 'b' and 'ch', and the new official spelling (used for example in the Citumbuka dictionary published online by the Centre for Language Studies and in the online Bible), in which the same words are written with 'ŵ' and 'c', e.g. ŵanthu and caka. (The sound 'ŵ' is a closely rounded [w] pronounced with the tongue in the close-i position.)[11] There is some uncertainty over where to write 'r' and where 'l', e.g. cakulya (Dictionary) or cakurya (Bible) 'food'. (In fact [l] and [r] are allophones of the same phoneme.) There is also hesitation between the spellings 'sk' and 'sy' (both miskombe and misyombe ('bamboo') are found in the Citumbuka dictionary).[12]



The same vowels /a/, /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, /u/ and syllabic /m̩/ are found in Tumbuka as in the neighbouring language Chewa.


Tumbuka consonants are also similar to those of the neighbouring Chewa, but with certain differences. The continuant sounds /ɣ/ and /h/, which are absent or marginal in Chewa, are common in Tumbuka. Also common are the palatalised sounds /vʲ/, /fʲ/, /bʲ/, /pʲ/, /skʲ/, /zgʲ/, and /ɽʲ/ (the status of 'ŵ' is uncertain). In Tumbuka there are no affricates such as Chichewa /psʲ/, /bzʲ/, /t͡s/, /d͡z/. The sounds /s/ and /z/ are never nasalised in Tumbuka, so that Chewa nsómba ('fish') = Tumbuka somba. The sound /ʃ/ is found only in foreign words such as shati ('shirt') and shuga ('sugar'). Tumbuka /ɽ/ sometimes corresponds to Chewa /d/, for example Chewa kudwala ('to be ill') = Tumbuka kulwala, Chewa kudya ('to eat') = Tumbuka kulya. The pronunciation of "sk" and "zg" varies according to dialect.

The possible consonant combinations are shown in the table below:

Table of Tumbuka consonants
voiced unvoiced aspirated nasalised voiced nasalised aspirated nasal semivowel/ liquid
labial ba
dental da
velar/ palatal ga
labio-dental va
sibilant za
ska (sya)
glottal ha


One of the main differences between Chewa and Tumbuka is that Chewa is a tonal language, whereas in Tumbuka there are no distinctions of tone between one word and another.

Tumbuka has a tonal accent but in a very limited way, in that every word, spoken in isolation, has the same falling tone on the penultimate syllable (which also coincides with stress).[13] It is therefore not possible in Tumbuka to contrast two different words or two different tenses tonally, as it is in Chichewa and other Bantu languages. However, this penultimate falling tone occurs not on every word, but only on the last word of a phonological phrase; e.g. in the following sentence, only the second word has a tone, the first being toneless:[14]

  • ti-ku-phika sî:ma 'we are cooking porridge'

A greater variety of tonal patterns is found in the ideophones (expressive words) of Tumbuka; for example Low (yoyoyo 'disintegrating into small pieces'), High (fyá: 'swooping low (of birds)'), High-Low (phúli 'sound of thing bursting'), and Low-High (yií 'sudden disappearance'), etc.[15]

Intonational tones are also used in Tumbuka; for example, in yes-no questions there is often a High-Low fall on the final syllable of the question:[16]

  • ku-limirâ-so ngô:mâ? 'are you also weeding the maize?'

There does not seem to be any consistent, direct correlation between tone in Tumbuka and focus.[17]



As is usual with Bantu languages, Tumbuka nouns are grouped into different noun classes according to their singular and plural prefixes. Each class of noun has its own adjective, pronoun, and verb agreements, known as 'concords'. Where the agreements disagree with the prefix, the agreements take precedence in deciding the class of noun. For example, the noun katundu 'possessions', despite having the prefix ka-, is placed in class 1, since one says katundu uyu 'these possessions' using the class 1 demonstrative uyu. Malawians themselves (e.g. in the University of Malawi's Citumbuka dictionary) refer to the noun classes by traditional names such as "Mu-Ŵa-"; Bantu specialists, however, refer to the classes by numbers (1/2 etc.) corresponding to the noun-classes of other Bantu languages. Occasionally nouns do not correspond to the classes below, e.g. fumu 'chief' (class 9) irregularly has a plural mafumu in class 6.

Class 1/2 (Mu-Ŵa-)

Some nouns in this class lack the prefix Mu-:

  • Munthu pl. ŵanthu (banthu) = person
  • Muzungu pl. ŵazungu (bazungu) = foreigner, white man
  • Mwana pl. ŵana (bana) = child
  • Bulu pl. ŵabulu = donkey
  • Sibweni pl. ŵasibweni = maternal uncle
  • Katundu (no pl.) = goods, possessions

Class 3/4 (Mu-Mi-)

  • Mutu pl. mitu = head
  • Mkuyu pl. mikuyu = fig-tree
  • Moyo pl. miyoyo = life
  • Mtima pl. mitima = heart

Class 5/6 (Li-Ma-)

  • Bhele pl. mabhele = breast
  • Bhoma pl. mabhoma = government, district
  • Bhotolo pl. mabhotolo = bottle
  • Fuko pl. mafuko = tribe, nation
  • Jiso pl. maso = eye
  • Maji (no singular) = water
  • Phiri pl. mapiri = hill
  • Suzgo pl. masuzgo = problem, trouble
  • Woko pl. mawoko = hand

Class 7/8 (Ci-Vi-)

  • Caka (chaka) pl. vyaka = year
  • Caro (charo) pl. vyaro = country, land
  • Ciŵeto (chibeto) pl. viŵeto (vibeto) = farm animal
  • Cidakwa (chidakwa) pl. vidakwa = drunkard
  • Cikoti (chikoti) pl. vikoti = whip

Class 9/10 (Yi-Zi-)

  • Mbale pl. mbale (mambale) = plate
  • Ndalama pl. ndalama = money
  • Njelwa pl. njelwa = brick
  • Nkhuku pl. nkhuku = chicken
  • Somba pl. somba = fish

Class 11 (Lu-)

Some speakers treat words in this class as if they were in class 5/6.[18]

  • Lwande = side
  • Lumbiri = fame
  • Lulime = tongue

Class 12/13 (Ka-Tu-)

  • Kanthu(kantu) pl. tunthu(tuntu) = small thing
  • Kamwana pl. tuŵana (tubana) = baby
  • Kayuni pl. tuyuni = bird
  • Tulo (no singular) = sleep

Class 14/6 (U-Ma-)

These nouns are frequently abstract and have no plural.

  • Usiku = night
  • Ulimi = farming
  • Ulalo pl. maulalo = bridge
  • Uta pl. mauta = bow

Class 15 (Ku-) Infinitive

  • Kugula = to buy, buying
  • Kwibha = to steal, stealing

Classes 16, 17, 18 (Pa-, Ku-, Mu-) Locative

  • Pasi = underneath
  • Kunthazi(kuntazi) = in front, before
  • Mukati = inside


Verbs, adjectives, numbers, possessives, and pronouns in Tumbuka have to agree with the noun referred to. This is done by means of prefixes or suffixes (called 'concords') which differ according to the class of noun. Class 1 has the greatest variety of concords, differing for pronouns, numbers, adjectives, verbs, and possessives:[19][20][21]

  • Mwana uyu = this child
  • Mwana yumoza = one child
  • Mwana uyo = that child
  • Mwana yose = the whole child
  • Mwana waliyose = every child
  • Mwana wakamuwona = the child saw him
  • Mwana muchoko (coko) = the small child
  • Mwana wa Khumbo (Kumbo) = Khumbo's child
  • Mwana wane = my child
  • Mwana wawona = the child has seen

Other noun classes have a smaller variety of concords, as can be seen from the table below:

Table of Tumbuka concords
noun English this num that all subj object adj of perf
1 mwana child uyu yu- uyo yose wa- -mu- mu- wa wa-
2 ŵana children aŵa ŵa- awo wose ŵa- -ŵa- ŵa- ŵa ŵa-
3 mutu head uwu wu- uwo wose wu- -wu- wu- wa wa-
4 mitu heads iyi yi- iyo yose yi- -yi- yi- ya ya-
5 jiso eye ili li- ilo lose li- -li- li- la la-
6 maso eyes agha gha- agho ghose gha- -gha- gha- gha gha-
7 caka year ici ci- ico cose ci- -ci- ci- ca ca-
8 vyaka years ivi vi- ivyo vyose vi- -vi- vi- vya vya-
9 nyumba house iyi yi- iyo yose yi- -yi- yi- ya ya-
10 nyumba houses izi zi- izo zose zi- -zi- zi- za za-
11 lwande side ulu lu- ulo lose lu- -lu- lu- lwa lwa-
(or: ili li- ilo lose li- -li- li- la la-)
12 kayuni bird aka ka- ako kose ka- -ka- ka- ka ka-
13 tuyuni birds utu tu- uto tose tu- -tu- tu- twa twa-
14 uta bow uwu wu- uwo wose wu- -wu- wu- wa wa-
15 kugula buying uku ku- uko kose ku- -ku- ku- kwa kwa-
16 pasi underneath apa pa- apo pose pa- -pa- pa- pa pa-
17 kunthazi in front uku ku- uko kose ku- -ku- ku- kwa kwa-
18 mukati inside umu mu- umo mose mu- -mu- mu- mwa mwa-


Some remarks on Tumbuka tenses can be found in Kiso (2012).

An example of Tumbuka[edit]

An example of a folktale translated into Tumbuka and other languages of Northern Malawi is given in the Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi carried out by the Centre for Language Studies of the University of Malawi.[22] The Tumbuka version of the folktale goes as follows:

KALULU NA FULU (Citumbuka)
Fulu wakaluta kukapemphiska vyakulya ku ŵanthu. Pakuyeya thumba lake wakacita kukaka ku cingwe citali na kuvwara mu singo, ndipo pakwenda thumba lake likizanga kunyuma kwakhe.
Wali mu nthowa, kalulu wakiza kunyuma kwakhe ndipo wakati “bowo, thumba lane!” Fulu wakati, "Thumba ndane iwe, wona cingwe ici ndakaka sono nkhuguza pakwenda.” Kalulu wakakana nipera, ndipo wakati “Tilute ku Mphala yikateruzge.” Mphala yikadumula mlandu na kuceketa cingwe ico Fulu wakakakira thumba. Ŵakatola thumba lira ndipo ŵakapa kalulu.
Pa zuŵa linyakhe Kalulu wakendanga, Fulu wakamsanga ndipo wakati, "Bowo, mcira wane!" Kalulu wakati, “Ake! Fulu iwe m'cira ngwane." Fulu wakakana, ndipo wakati, "Ndasola ngwane." Ŵakaluta ku mphala, kuti yikaŵeruzge. Ku Mphala kula mlandu ukatowera Fulu. Ŵakadumula m'cira wa Kalulu nakupa Fulu.
Tortoise went to beg food from people. To carry his bag, he tied it to a long string and wore it round his neck. As he walked along, the bag was coming behind him.
As he was on his way, Hare came up behind him and said, "There it is, my bag!" Tortoise said "The bag is mine, see this string I've tied now I'm pulling it as I go." Hare refused to accept this and said "Let's go the Court, it will judge us." The Court examined the case and cut Tortoise's string which he'd tied the bag with. They took that bag and gave it to Hare.
Another day when Hare was walking along, Tortoise found him and said, "There it is, my tail!" Hare said, "Nonsense, this is my tail, Tortoise." Tortoise refused to accept this and said, "What I've got is mine." They went to the Court so that it could make a judgement. In that Court, the case went in Tortoise's favour. They cut off Hare's tail and gave it to Tortoise.

Some vocabulary[edit]

Helpful phrases[edit]

  • Enya = Yes
  • Yayi = No
  • Yebo (yeŵo) = Thank you
  • Taonga = We are thankful
  • Nkhukhumba chakurya! = I want some food !
  • Munganipako chakurya? = could you give me some food?
  • Ine nkhuyowoya chiTumbuka yayi! = I do not speak chiTumbuka!
  • Yendani makola = Travel well.
  • Nkukhumba maji yakumwa = I would like water to drink.


  • Mwawuka uli ? = Good morning. (How did you wake up?)
  • Tawuka makola. Kwali imwe? = Fine. And you? (I woke up well. I don't know about you?)
  • Muli uli ? = How are you?
  • Nili makola, kwali imwe? = I am fine, how are you?
  • Mwatandala uli? = Good afternoon. (How did you spend the day?)
  • Natandala makola. Kwali imwe? = Good afternoon. How are you? (I spent the day well. I don't know about you?)
  • Monile = somewhat more formal than "Hi". Perhaps best translated as "Greetings".
  • Tionanenge = We shall meet again.


The plural ba- (ŵa-) is often used for politeness when referring to elders:

  • Munyamata = boy
  • Banyamata (ŵanyamata) = boys
  • Musungwana = girl
  • Basungwana (ŵasungwana) = girls
  • Bamwali (ŵamwali) = young ladies
  • Banchembere (ŵancembele) = a woman with babies
  • Bamama (ŵamama)= mother
  • Badada(ŵadhadha) = dad
  • Bagogo (ŵagogo) = grandmother
  • Babuya (ŵabhuya) = grandmother, also used when addressing old female persons
  • Basekulu (ŵasekulu) = grandfather
  • Bankhazi (ŵankhazi)= paternal aunt
  • ŵa/Bamama ŵa/bachoko / ŵa/bakulu = maternal aunt usually your mother's younger/older sister
  • Basibweni (ŵasibweni) = maternal uncle
  • Badada(ŵadhadha) bachoko / bakulu = paternal uncle usually your father's younger/older brother
  • Mudumbu(mudhumbu) wane = my brother/ sister (for addressing a sibling of the opposite sex)
  • Muchoko wane / muzuna wane/ munung'una wane = my young brother / sister (for addressing a sibling of the same sex)
  • Mukuru wane / mulala wane = my elder brother / sister (for addressing a sibling of the same sex)


  • Kusebela (Kuseŵera) = to play
  • Kuseka = to laugh
  • Kurya = to eat
  • Kugona = to sleep
  • Kwenda = to walk
  • Kuchimbila = to run
  • Kulemba = to write
  • Kuchapa = to do laundry
  • Kugeza = to bath
  • Kuphika = to cook
  • Kulima = to dig / cultivate
  • Kupanda = to plant
  • Kuvina = to dance
  • Kwimba = to sing


  • Fulu = tortoise
  • Kalulu = hare
  • Gwere = hippo
  • Chimbwi = hyena
  • Njoka = snake
  • Nkhumba = pig
  • Ng'ombe = cow
  • Nchebe (Ncheŵe) = dog
  • Chona/pusi/Kiti = cat
  • Mbelele = sheep
  • Nkalamu = lion
  • Mbuzi = goat
  • Nkhuku = chicken

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Tumbuka". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2018-08-10.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tumbuka". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ a b Michigan State University African Studies Center information page.
  5. ^ Kiso (2012), pp.21ff.
  6. ^ University of Malawi (2006) Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi.
  7. ^ Kamwendo (2004), p.282.
  8. ^ University of Malawi (2006), p.27.
  9. ^ Kamwendo (2004), p.278.
  10. ^ See Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi (2006), pp.38-40 for a list of publications.
  11. ^ Atkins, Guy (1950) "Suggestions for an Amended Spelling and Word Division of Nyanja" Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.205.
  12. ^ See entries citatanga, cidunga, cihengo.
  13. ^ Downing (2008, 2012).
  14. ^ Downing (2012), p.123.
  15. ^ Moto (1999), pp.112-120.
  16. ^ Downing (2008), p.55.
  17. ^ Downing (2012), p.129.
  18. ^ Shiozaki (2004).
  19. ^ Chase (2004).
  20. ^ Shiozaki (2004)
  21. ^ Vail (1971).
  22. ^ Language Mapping Survey, p. 60-64.


  • Centre for Language Studies, University of Malawi (2018). Mung'anamulira Mazgo wa Citumbuka (monolingual Citumbuka dictionary). ISBN 978-99960-9-610-5
  • Chase, Robert (2004). "A Comparison of Demonstratives in the Karonga and Henga Dialects of Tumbuka". Undergraduate paper. Amherst: Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Massachusetts.
  • Downing, Laura J. (2006). "The Prosody and Syntax of Focus in Chitumbuka". ZAS Papers in Linguistics 43, 55-79.
  • Downing, Laura J. (2008). "Focus and prominence in Chichewa, Chitumbuka and Durban Zulu". ZAS Papers in Linguistics 49, 47-65.
  • Downing, Laura J. (2012). "On the (Non-)congruence of Focus and Prominence in Tumbuka". Selected Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Conference on African Linguistics, ed. Michael R. Marlo et al., 122-133. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.
  • Downing, Laura J. (2017). "Tone and intonation in Chichewa and Tumbuka". In Laura J. Downing & Annie Rialland (eds) Intonation in African Tone Languages. de Gruyter, Berlin/Boston, pp. 365–392.
  • Elmslie, Walter Angus (1923): Introductory Grammar of the Tumbuka Language. Livingstonia Mission Press.
  • Kamwendo, Gregory H. (2004). Kamwendo "Your Chitumbuka is Shallow. It's not the Real Chitumbuka: Linguistic Purism Among Chitumbuka Speakers in Malawi", Nordic Journal of African Studies 13(3): 275–288.
  • Kishindo, Pascal J. et Allan L. Lipenga (2006). Parlons citumbuka : langue et culture du Malawi et de la Zambie, L'Harmattan, Paris, Budapest, Kinshasa, 138 pages. ISBN 2-296-00470-9
  • Kiso, Andrea (2012). "Tense and Aspect in Chichewa, Citumbuka, and Cisena". Ph.D. Thesis. Stockholm University.
  • Moto, Francis (1999). "The Tonal Phonology of Bantu Ideophones". Malilime: Malawian Journal of Linguistics no.1, 100-120. (pp. 112–119 deals with tone in Chitumbuka ideophones).
  • Mphande, L. (1989). "A Phonological Analysis of the Ideophone in Chitumbuka". Ph.D. Dissertation. The University of Texas, Austin.
  • Shiozaki, Lisa (2004). "Concordial agreement in the Karonga dialect of Tumbuka". Undergraduate paper. Amherst: Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Massachusetts.
  • Turner, W.M. (1952). Tumbuka–Tonga–English Dictionary The Hetherwick Press, Blantyre, Nyasaland (now Malawi).
  • University of Malawi Centre for Language Studies (2006). "Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi".
  • Vail, Hazen Leroy (1971). "The noun classes of Tumbuka". African studies, v. 30, 1, p. 35-59.
  • Vail, Hazen Leroy (1972). "Aspects of the Tumbuka Verb". Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin.

External links[edit]