Northern Ndebele language

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Northern Ndebele
Zimbabwe Ndebele
isiNdebele saseNyakatho
RegionMatabeleland North, Matabeleland South in Zimbabwe; North-East District in Botswana
Native speakers
5 million (2015)[1]
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1nd – North Ndebele
ISO 639-2nde – North Ndebele
ISO 639-3nde – North Ndebele
Linguasphere99-AUT-fk incl.
varieties 99-AUT-fka
to 99-AUT-fkd
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.
The Ndebele Language
PeopleamaNdebele (prev. Matabele)

Northern Ndebele (English: /ɛndəˈbl/), also called Ndebele, isiNdebele, Zimbabwean Ndebele[1] or North Ndebele,[4][5] and formerly known as Matabele, is an African language belonging to the Nguni group of Bantu languages, spoken by the Northern Ndebele people, or Matabele, of Zimbabwe.

Northern Ndebele is related to the Zulu language, spoken in South Africa. This is because the Northern Ndebele people of Zimbabwe descend from followers of the Zulu leader Mzilikazi (one of Zulu King Shaka's generals), who left the Zulu Kingdom in the early 19th century, during the Mfecane, arriving in present-day Zimbabwe in 1839.

Although there are some differences in grammar, lexicon and intonation between Zulu and Northern Ndebele, the two languages share more than 85% of their lexicon.[6] To prominent Nguni linguists like Anthony Cope and Cyril Nyembezi, Northern Ndebele is a dialect of Zulu. To others like Langa Khumalo, it is a language. Distinguishing between a language and a dialect for language varieties that are very similar is difficult, with the decision often being based not on linguistic but political criteria.[7][8][9]

Northern Ndebele and Southern Ndebele (or Transvaal Ndebele), which is spoken in South Africa, are separate but related languages with some degree of mutual intelligibility, although the former is more closely related to Zulu. Southern Ndebele, while maintaining its Nguni roots, has been influenced by the Sotho languages.[10]



Northern Ndebele consonants
Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive ejective p [pʼ] t [tʼ] k [kʼ]
voiced bh [b] d [d] ɡ [ɡ]
aspirated ph [pʰ] th [tʰ] kh [kʰ]
prenasalized mp [ᵐp] nt [ⁿt] nk [ᵑk]
prenasalized (vd.) mb [ᵐb] nd [ⁿd] ng [ᵑɡ]
Fricative plain f [f] s [s] sh [ʃ] h [h]
voiced (depr.) b [βʱ] v [vʱ] z [zʱ] zh [ʒʱ] (k [ɣʱ]) (h [ɦ])
voiced (non-depr.) b [β] (k [ɣ])
prenasalized mf [ᶬf] ns [ⁿs]
prenasalized (vd.) mv [ᶬv] nz [ⁿz]
Nasal plain m [m] n [n] ny [ɲ] ngh [ŋ]
depressed m [mʱ] n [nʱ] ny [ɲʱ] ngh [ŋʱ]
Lateral fricative plain hl [ɬ]
voiced dl [ɮ]
prenasalized nhl [ⁿɬ]
prenasalized (vd.) ndl [ⁿɮ]
Rhotic r [r]
Approximant plain w [w] y [j]
depressed w [wʱ] y [jʱ]
Lateral approximant plain l [l]
depressed l [lʱ]
Alveolar Post-
Affricate voiceless ejective ts [tsʼ] tj [tʃʼ] kl [kxʼ]
aspirated tsh [tsʰ] tjh [tʃʰ]
voiced j [dʒ]
prenasalized ejective nts [ⁿtsʼ] ntjh [ᶮtʃʼ] nkl [ᵑkxʼ]
voiced nj [ᶮdʒ]

Many consonant sounds may result in depressed (or breathy) allophones. Alveolar consonants, t, d, and n, may have dentalized allophones of [t̪ʼ, d̪, n̪]. Consonants k and h can result in allophones of [ɣ, ɣʱ] and [ɦ].

Ndebele /t͡ʃ/ generally correspond to Zulu /ʃ/.[11]


There are five vowel phonemes, written with the letters a, e, i, o, u.

  • a is pronounced [a], approximately like a in father; e.g. abantwana (children)
  • e is pronounced [ɛ] or [e], sometimes like e in bed; e.g. emoyeni (in the air)
  • i is pronounced [i], like ee in see; e.g. siza (help)
  • o is pronounced [ɔ] or [o], sometimes approximately like o in bone; e.g. okhokho (ancestors)
  • u is pronounced [u], like oo in soon; e.g. umuntu (person)

Click consonants[edit]

In Northern Ndebele, there are three click consonants c, q and x.

c [ǀ] is made by placing the tip of the tongue against the front upper teeth and gums, the centre of the tongue is depressed and the tip of the tongue is drawn backwards. The resulting sound is similar to the sound used in English to express annoyance.[12] Some examples are cina (end), cela (ask). [13]

The q [!] sound is made by raising the back of the tongue to touch the soft palate and touching the gums with the sides and tip of the tongue. The centre of the tongue is depressed and the tip drawn quickly away from the gum. The resulting sound is like the "pop" heard when quickly removing the cork from a bottle.[12] Some examples are qalisa (start), qeda (finish). [13]

The x [ǁ] sound is made by placing the tongue so that the back of the tongue touches the soft palate and the sides and tip of the tongue touch the gums. One side of the tongue is quickly withdrawn from the gums.[12] Some examples are xoxa (discuss), ixoxo (frog). [13]

Northern Ndebele clicks
Dental Post-
Plosive voiceless plain c [kǀ] q [k!] x [kǁ]
aspirated ch [kǀʰ] qh [k!ʰ] xh [kǁʰ]
voiced depressed gc [ɡǀʱ] gq [ɡ!ʱ] gx [ɡǁʱ]
nasalized nc [ŋǀ] nq [ŋ!] nx [ŋǁ]
nasalized (depr.) ngc [ŋǀʱ] ngq [ŋ!ʱ] ngx [ŋǁʱ]


Months in Southern Ndebele

English Northern Ndebele (Zimbabwe) Southern Ndebele (South Africa) Zulu (South Africa)
January uZibandlela uTjhirhweni uMasingane
February uNhlolanja uMhlolanja uNhlolanja
March uMbimbitho uNtaka uNdasa
April uMabasa uSihlabantangana UMbasa
May uNkwekwezi uMrhayili UNhlaba
June uNhlangula uMgwengweni UNhlangulana
July uNtulikazi uVelabahlinze uNtulikazi
August uNcwabakazi uRhoboyi UNcwaba
September uMpandula uKhukhulamungu uMandulo
October uMfumfu uSewula uMfumfu
November uLwezi uSinyikhaba uLwezi
December uMpalakazi uNobayeni uZibandlela


Ndebele grammar is similar to that of Zulu, with some distinct differences. Northern Ndebele is a Nguni language and is to some extent also mutually intelligible with Swati and Xhosa, the predominant language in the Eastern Cape.


The Northern Ndebele noun consists of two essential parts, the prefix and the stem. Using the prefixes, nouns can be grouped into noun classes, which are numbered consecutively, to ease comparison with other Bantu languages.

The following table gives an overview of Northern Ndebele noun classes, arranged according to singular-plural pairs.

Class Singular Plural
1/2 um(u)-1 aba-, abe-
1a/2a u- o-
3/4 um(u)-1 imi-
5/6 i-, ili- ama-
7/8 is(i)- iz(i)-
9/10 iN- iziN-
11/10 u-, ulu-
14 ubu-, ub-, utsh-
15 uku-
17 uku-

1 umu- replaces um- before monosyllabic stems, e. g. umuntu (person).


Verbs use the following affixes for the subject and the object:

Prefix Infix
1st sing. ngi- -ngi-
2nd sing. u- -wu-
1st plur. si- -si-
2nd plur. li- -li-
1 u- -m(u)-
2 ba- -ba-
3 u- -m(u)-
4 i- -yi-
5 li- -li-
6 a- -wa-
7 si- -si-
8 zi- -zi-
9 i- -yi-
10 zi- -zi-
11 lu- -lu-
14 bu- -bu-
15 ku- -ku-
17 ku- -ku-
reflexive -zi-

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ndebele at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Zimbabwean Ndebele". 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. ^ "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: nde". ISO 639-2 Registration Authority - Library of Congress. Archived from the original on 2017-12-22. Retrieved 2017-07-04. Name: North Ndebele
  5. ^ "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: nde". ISO 639-3 Registration Authority - SIL International. Archived from the original on 2017-11-01. Retrieved 2017-07-04. Name: North Ndebele
  6. ^ Langa Khumalo, “Language Contact and Lexical Change: A Lexicographical Terminographical Interface in Zimbabwean Ndebele,” Lexikos 14, no. 108 (2004).
  7. ^ Anthony Cope, “A Consolidated Classification of the Bantu Languages,” African Studies 30, nos. 3–4 1971): 213–36.
  8. ^ Nyembezi, C.L.S., 1957. Learn Zulu, Cape Town: Shuter & SHooter
  9. ^ D.K. Rycroft “Ndebele and Zulu: Some Phonetic and Tonal Comparisons,” Zambezia, no. 2 (1980): 109–28.
  10. ^ Skhosana, Philemon Buti (2009). "3". The Linguistic Relationship between Southern and Northern Ndebele (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-11-17.
  11. ^ D.K. Rycroft “Ndebele and Zulu: Some Phonetic and Tonal Comparisons,” Zambezia, no. 2 (1980): 109–28.
  12. ^ a b c Shenk, J.R. A New Ndebele Grammar
  13. ^ a b c

Further reading[edit]

  • Bowern, Claire; Lotridge, Victoria, eds. (2002). Ndebele. Munich: LINCOM EUROPA. ISBN 3-89586-465-X.
  • Sibanda, Galen (2004). Verbal Phonology and Morphology of Ndebele (Ph.D.). University of California, Berkeley.
  • Hadebe, Samukele (2002). The Standardisation of the Ndebele Language Through Dictionary-making. University of Zimbabwe - University of Oslo.
  • Skhosana, P.B. (2010). The Linguistic Relationship between Southern and Northern Ndebele. University of Pretoria: DLitt Thesis.

External links[edit]