Southern Ndebele language

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This article is about the Southern Ndebele language of the Transvaal region of South Africa. For information about the language spoken by the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe (sometimes called Matabele, Sindebele or Northern Ndebele), see Northern Ndebele language.
Southern Ndebele
Native to South Africa
Region Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng, North West
Native speakers
1.1 million  (2011 census)[1]
1.4 million L2 speakers (2002)[2]
Latin (Ndebele alphabet)
Ndebele Braille
Signed Ndebele
Official status
Official language in
 South Africa
Language codes
ISO 639-1 nr
ISO 639-2 nbl
ISO 639-3 nbl
Glottolog sout2808[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUT-fi + 99-AUT-fj
Geographical distribution of isiNdebele in South Africa: proportion of the population that speaks isiNdebele at home.
Geographical distribution of isiNdebele in South Africa: density of isiNdebele home-language speakers.
Bilingual sign in Afrikaans and Southern Ndebele at the Pretoria Art Museum

The Southern Ndebele language (isiNdebele or Nrebele in Southern Ndebele) is an African language belonging to the Nguni group of Bantu languages, and spoken by the amaNdebele (the Ndebele people of South Africa).

There is also another, separate dialect called Northern Ndebele or Matabele spoken in Zimbabwe and Botswana. The Zimbabwean and South African Ndebele dialect is closer to Zulu than other Nguni dialects.


The history of the amaNdebele can be traced to Musi, the last monarch of the tribe as a single nation. Researchers still disagree on specific times of the tribe's separation from their main Nguni Group (which include the Xhosa, Zulu and the Swazi).It is estimated that the migration took place as early as 1200 A.D. AmaNdebele are known to be the first Nguni group to enter the hinterland of the southern tip of the African continent, later to be called Transvaal (today's Gauteng Province). AmaNdebele lived as one nation at Emhlangeni (today's Randfontein area) under King Mhlanga approximately between 1550-1580. The name of EMhlangeni is today being translated to the Sotho language, Mohlakeng. Most archeologists and historians agree that the amaNdebele settled for a longer period peacefully at Kwamnyamana and Emarula (Wonderboompoort). These areas are in the north and northwest of present day Pretoria. The tribe arrived in this area with Musi, the son of Mhlanga who is in turn the son of Mafana. The tribe can still be found in that area to day.


Ndebele is one of the eleven official languages in the Republic of South Africa. The language is a Nguni or Zunda classification (UN) spoken mostly in the Mpumalanga Province, Gauteng, Limpopo and the Northwest.

The expression "isikhethu" can be loosely translated to mean 'the Ndebele way of doing or saying'. Isikhethu means Ndebele the same way that sikitsi will mean Swazi and se harona will mean Sotho. The language has been severely marginalized over the years. Until the formation of the apartheid Ndebele homeland (KwaNdebele), speaking the language publicly was discouraged. Most Ndebele speakers preferred Zulu especially because the latter was learned at school. Today the Ndebele speakers, mostly those who are educated still prefer to use Ndebele as home language for their children and will use Ndebele as a language to communicate with other Ndebele speakers.


Months in Ndebele

  • January – uZibandlela
  • February – uNhlolanja
  • March – uMbimbitho
  • April – uMabasa
  • May – uNkwekwezi
  • June – uNhangula
  • July – uNtulikazi
  • August – uNgcabakazi
  • September – uMpandula
  • October – uMfumfu
  • November – uLwezi
  • December – uMpalakazi

AmaNdebele In Zimbabwe[edit]

The two Ndebele groups are both part of the Nguni language group and are therefore mutually intelligible to some extent. However, the Northern (Zimbabwean) Ndebele is part of the Zunda sub-group of the Nguni languages (which includes Xhosa and Zulu) while the South African (or Southern Ndebele), while maintaining its Nguni roots, has been influenced by the Sotho languages.[5]


  1. ^ Southern Ndebele at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Webb, Vic. 2002. "Language in South Africa: the role of language in national transformation, reconstruction and development." Impact: Studies in language and society, 14:78
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "South Ndebele". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  5. ^ Skhosana, P.B. (2010) The Linguistic Relationship between Southern and Northern Ndebele, University of Pretoria, DLitt Thesis

External links[edit]