Ovambo language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Native to Angola, Namibia
Ethnicity Ovambo
Native speakers
1.5 million (1993–2006)[1]
Standard forms
Language codes
ISO 639-1 kj – Kwanyama
ng – Ndonga
ISO 639-2 kua, ndo
ISO 639-3 Variously:
kua – Kwanyama
ndo – Ndonga
kwm – Kwambi
lnb – Mbalanhu
nne – Ngandjera
Glottolog ndon1253[2]
R.20 (R.21–24,211–218,241–242)[3]
Person Omuwambo
People Aawambo, Ovawambo
Language Oshiwambo
Country Owambo, Ouwambo
Modern-day distribution of Oshiwambo speakers in Namibia

The Ovambo language or Oshiwambo is a dialect cluster spoken by the Ovambo people in Angola and northern Namibia, of which the written standards are Kwanyama and Ndonga.

The native name for the language is Oshiwambo (also written "Oshivambo"), which is also used specifically for the Kwanyama and Ndonga dialects. Over half of the people in Namibia speak Oshiwambo,[4] particularly the Ovambo people.

The language is closely related to that of the Herero and Himba, the Herero language (Otjiherero). An obvious sign of proximity is the prefix used for language and dialect names, Proto-Bantu *ki- (class 7, as in the name of the Swahili language, Kiswahili), which in Herero has evolved to Otji- and in Ovambo further to Oshi-.


After Namibia's independence in 1990, the area previously known as Ovamboland was divided into the Ohangwena, Omusati, Oshana and Oshikoto Regions. The population, estimated at between 700,000 and 750,000, fluctuates remarkably. This is because of the indiscriminate border drawn up by the Portuguese and German Empires during colonial rule, which cut through the Oukwanyama tribal area, placing some in Angola and others in Namibia. This results in regular cross-border movement.

There are approximately one million Oshiwambo speakers in Namibia and Angola.[5] Though it is mainly spoken in the northern regions of Namibia, it is widely spoken across the rest of the country by populations of migrant workers from Ovamboland. These workers comprise a large part of the population in many towns, particularly in the south, where there are jobs in the mining industry. For example, in Lüderitz, an 18-hour drive from Ovamboland, at least 50% of the population speaks Oshiwambo.


The names Ambo and Ovambo appears to have originally been exonyms. Despite extensive speculation, their origin remains unknown.

The country was called Ovamboland and Amboland by the German colonial authorities. In English, Ovamboland predominates, though Ambo country is sometimes used, and in English publications from Namibia, Owamboland, Wamboland, and Owambo are seen. The endemic forms are Owambo (Ndonga) and Ouwambo (Kwanyama).

The people are generally called the Ovambo or Ambo in English. The endemic forms are Aawambo (Ndonga) and Ovawambo (Kwanyama); the singular in both cases is Omuwambo. The language is generally called Ovambo, Ambo, or Oshiwambo in English; the endonym in both standards is Oshiwambo.[6]

One anecdote attempting to explain the origin of the name puts it down to a misunderstanding. According to the story, there was a German based in Windhoek during colonial times who was told about the existence of a tribe further north who mined and produced their own iron. Surprised to learn about the existence of such an advanced culture in the region, he set out on an expedition with some Herero guides. When they were approaching the Tsumeb hills, the guides spotted the first members of the tribe they were looking for in the distance, and while pointing towards them said in Herero: "Ova mbo!", which can be translated roughly as "There they are!". The German interpreted this as an ethnonym, which made him write in his diary that evening: "Heute habe ich die Owambo gesehen" (=Today I saw the Ovambos).

Ovambo tribes and dialects[edit]

There are eight dialects, including the two written standards Kwanyama and Ndonga.

The following table contains the names, areas, dialect names and the locations of the Ovambo tribes according to T. E. Tirronen's Ndonga-English Dictionary. The table also contains information concerning which noun class of Proto-Bantu the words belong to.[7]

Area Tribe Dialect Location
Classes 9 (*ny > on-), 11 (uu-/ou-) Class 2 (*wa-, a-) Class 7 (*ki > oshi-)
Ondonga Aa-ndonga Ndonga dialect Southern Ovamboland
Uu-kwambi Aa-kwambi Kwambi dialect Central Ovamboland
O-ngandjera Aa-ngandjera Oshi-ngandjera Central Ovamboland
Uu-kwaluudhi Aa-kwaluudhi Oshi-kwaluudhi Western Ovamboland
O-mbalanhu Aa-mbalanhu Oshi-mbalanhu Western Ovamboland
Uu-kolonkadhi Aa-kolonkadhi Oshi-kolonkadhi Western Ovamboland
Oukwanyama Ova-kwanyama Kwanyama dialect Northern and Eastern Ovamboland, Angola
Eunda Unda Oshi-unda northwest, Epalela vicinity

Maho (2009) lists the following as distinct languages in the Ovambo cluster:[3]

  • Kwanyama
    • Kafima
    • Evale
    • Mbandja
    • Mbalanhu
    • Ndongwena
    • Kwankwa
    • Dombondola
    • Esinga
  • Ndonga
  • Kwambi
  • Ngandjera
  • Kwaluudhi
    • Kolonkadhi-Eunda


One thing that a visitor to what used to be known as Owamboland notices is the high number of place-names starting with ’O’. This is due to the fact that Oshiwambo has added an initial o- to most noun class prefixes, like its neighbour Herero. In fact, in the case of noun class 9 this ”pre-prefix” has in itself become the prefix. From a diachronic point of view, the correct analysis of words such as ‘ontungwa’, ‘onkoshi’ and ‘ompo’ would be on-tungwa, on-koshi and om-po respectively, the old Bantu prefix having been reduced to a simple nasal sound. However, it is clear that modern speakers treat the o- by itself as the actual prefix. We can see this from the fact that new borrowings do not get nasal sounds in front of the stem, but instead we get for example oTV (=television), ocooldrank (=soft drink) and opolitika (=politics).

Oshiwambo has gone one step further than Herero and also added an o- to subject concords, which are basically verb prefixes. However, in this case one should note that although grammar books typically list these concords with the o-forms, this ‘o’ is not always pronounced, and in some cases the o-forms would even be ungrammatical, as is the case for relative/participial clauses:

Nda aruk’ ike aanona tayiithanandje (*otayiithanandje) = I just suddenly found children calling me.

The concept of the word as a unit of speech has little relevance in the analysis of Oshiwambo. In contrast to for example European languages, where the word is an important concept when describing rules for stress placement as well as phonotactic rules, word stress is not a feature of Oshiwambo, which instead uses tone, and tones are assigned to syllables, not to words. Phonotactic rules also apply at syllable level, not at word level. In fact, when writing Oshiwambo most speakers of the language find it very difficult to divide sentences into words according to the standard orthography (which was designed by people speaking European languages).


  1. ^ Kwanyama at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Ndonga at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Kwambi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Mbalanhu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Ngandjera at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Ndonga (R.20)". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ a b Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ "New African Frontiers". Retrieved May 16, 2009. 
  5. ^ "United Nations Information Centre". Retrieved 10 January 2009. [dead link]
  6. ^ Minna Saarelma-Maunumaa, 2003, Edhina Ekogidho—Names as Links: The Encounter between African and European Anthroponymic Systems among the Ambo People in Namibia. Helsinki.[1]
  7. ^ Toivo Emil Tirronen: Ndonga-English Dictionary. Oshinyanyangidho shongeleki ELCIN. Oniipa, 1986.

External links[edit]