Ovambo language

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Not to be confused with Ambo language (Zambia) or Ambo language (Nigeria).
Native to Angola, Namibia
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

Ovambo, also known as Wambo or Ambo, is a dialect cluster in Angola and northern Namibia, of which the written standards are Kwanyama and Ndonga.

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


After Namibia's independence in 1990, the area previously known as Owamboland was divided into the regions of Ohangwena, Omusati, Oshana or Otshana, and Oshikoto. 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 Germans 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]

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 the Proto-Bantu language the words belong to.[7]

Area Tribe Dialect Location
Classes 9 (*ny > on-), 11 (uu-/ou-) Class 2 (*wa-, a-) Class 7 (*ki > oshi-)
O-ndonga Aa-ndonga Oshi-ndonga Southern Ovamboland
Uu-kwambi Aa-kwambi Oshi-kwambi 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
Ou-kwanyama Ova-kwanyama Oshi-kwanyama Northern and Eastern Ovamboland, Angola
Eunda Ova-unda Oshi-unda north west, 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


  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. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Ndonga (R.20)". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  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]