Tumbuka language

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Native to Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi
Native speakers
2.6 million (2006–2010)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2 tum
ISO 639-3 tum
Glottolog tumb1250[2]
Linguasphere 99-AUS-wc (+ chi-Kamanga) incl. varieties 99-AUS-wca...-wcl

The Tumbuka language is a Bantu language which is spoken in parts of Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania.

The language of the Tumbuka people is called Chitumbuka or Citumbuka — the chi- marker in front of Tumbuka means "the language of the", and is understood in this case to mean "the language of (the Tumbuka people)". This marker is similar to shi- in Shimaore, se- (or si- in some parts of South Africa) in seTswana / siTswana or ki- in Kiswahili, and iki- (or ki-) in Ikinyarwanda / Kinyarwanda, among several examples.

The World Almanac (1998) estimates approximately 2,000,000 Tumbuka speakers exist in the aforementioned three countries.

There are substantial differences between the form of Tumbuka spoken in urban areas (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".[4] The Mzimba dialect has been strongly influenced by Zulu (chiNgoni), even so far as to have clicks in words like chitha [ʇʰitʰa] "urinate", which do not occur in other dialects. Senga "dialect" is not actually Tumbuka at all, but a Sabi language more closely related to Bemba.

The Tumbuka language suffered during the time of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, since in 1968 as a result of a 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.[5] 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.

Linguistic descriptions[edit]

Some remarks on Tumbuka as well as the related Tonga language can be found in W.M. Turner (1952), Tumbuka–Tonga–English Dictionary, The Hetherwick Press, Blantyre.

Tumbuka tone[edit]

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).[6] 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 only on the last word of a phonological phrase, e.g. in the following sentence, only the second word has a tone:

  • ti-ku-phika sî:ma 'we are cooking porridge'[7]

Thus, although it is not possible in Tumbuka to have a tonal contrast between two words, it is possible to have a tonal contrast between two phrases, as in:

  • mwêzi wamâla 'the month has ended'
  • mwezi wamâla 'last month (the month which has ended)'

Tonal contrasts are also possible in the ideophones (expressive words) of Tumbuka. In an article Moto identifies a number of possible tonal patterns of ideophones, including low (yoyoyo 'disintegrating into small pieces'), high (fyá: 'swooping low (of birds)'), high-low (phúli 'sound of thing bursting'), low-high (yií 'sudden disappearance') and others.[8]

Intonational tones are also used in Tumbuka, for example in questions. Yes-no questions often have a tone which falls from high to low on the final:

  • ku-limirá-so ngô:mâ? 'are you also weeding the maize?'[9]

There does not seem to be any consistent, direct correlation between tone in Tumbuka and focus.[10]

Some vocabulary[edit]

  • Bingu = cloud
  • Bondo = spoor, hoofmarks of game
  • Chaka = year, annual sports day - plural: *vyaka
  • Charu = country, land
  • Chigwere = hippo
  • Dongo = earth, soil, mud, clay
  • Finyi (adjective) = narrow
  • Jambuloko = a ford, a wading-across place
  • Kaya = home
  • Khutu = ear
  • Kubwaranthika = to leap
  • Woko = hand, arm
  • Lizgu = word, voice
  • Lukutu = pen, fold, roofed kraal for livestock - plural: * malukutu

Helpful phrases[edit]

  • Enya = Yes
  • Yayi = No
  • Yebo (yeŵo) = Thank you
  • Taonga = We are thankful
  • Nkumba chakurya! = I want some food !
  • Munga nipako chakurya? = could you give me some food?
  • Ine nkhuyowoya chiTumbuka yayi! = I do not speak chiTumbuka!
  • Yendani makola. = Travel well.
  • Nkhukumba maji yakumya. = 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."
  • Tionanange = We shall meet again.


(Note that in the Citumbuka dictionary of the Centre for Language Studies the prefix written below as Ba is spelled ŵa: ŵanyamata, ŵamwali etc. The sound is a bilabial fricative pronounced with spread lips.)

  • Ba nyamata = boys
  • Mu nyamata = boy
  • Ba sungwana = girls
  • Mu sungwana = girl
  • Ba mwali = young ladies
  • Ba nchebere = a woman with babies
  • Ba mama = mother
  • Ba dada = dad
  • Ba gogo = grandmother
  • Ba buya = grandmother, also used when addressing old female persons
  • Ba sekulu = grandfather
  • Ba nkazi = paternal aunty
  • Ba mama ba choko / kulu = maternal aunty usually your mother's younger/older sister
  • Ba sibweni = maternal uncle
  • Ba dada ba choko/kulu = paternal uncle usually your father's younger/older brother
  • Mu dumbu wane = my brother/ sister (for addressing a sibling of the opposite sex)
  • Mu choko wane/mu zuna wane = my 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
  • Chimbwi = hyena
  • Njoka = snake
  • Nkhumba = pig
  • Ng'ombe = cow
  • Nchebe (Ncheŵe) = dog
  • Chona/pusi = cat
  • Mbelele = sheep
  • Nkalamu = lion
  • Mbuzi = goat

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tumbuka at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tumbuka". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ Kamwendo (2004), p.282.
  5. ^ Kamwendo (2004), p.278.
  6. ^ Downing (2008, 2012).
  7. ^ Downing (2008), p.123.
  8. ^ Moto (1999), pp.112-119.
  9. ^ Downing (2008), p.55.
  10. ^ Downing (2012), p.129.


  • 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.
  • Kamwendo, Gregory H. (2004). "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.
  • 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. Disseration. The University of Texas, Austin.
  • Turner, W.M. (1952). Tumbuka–Tonga–English Dictionary The Hetherwick Press, Blantyre (now Malawi).
  • Vail, Hazen Leroy (1972). "Aspects of the Tumbuka Verb". Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin.

External links[edit]