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 the Northern Region of Malawi and also in the Lundazi district of Zambia.[4] It is also known as Chitumbuka or Citumbuka — the chi- prefix in front of Tumbuka means "the language of", and is understood in this case to mean "the language of (the Tumbuka people)". Tumbuka belongs to the same language group (Guthrie Zone N) as Chewa and Sena.[5]

The World Almanac (1998) estimates that there are approximately 2,000,000 Tumbuka speakers, though other sources estimate a much smaller number. The majority of Tumbuka speakers are said to live in Malawi.[4] Tumbuka is the most widely spoken of the languages of Northern Malawi, especially in the Rumphi, Mzuzu, and Mzimba districts.[6]

There are substantial differences between the form of Tumbuka spoken in urban areas of Malawi (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".[7] The Mzimba dialect has been strongly influenced by Zulu (chiNgoni),[8] even so far as to have clicks in words like chitha [ʇʰitʰa] "urinate", which do not occur in other dialects.

The Tumbuka language suffered during the rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, since in 1968 as a result of his 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.[9] 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.[10]

Tumbuka spelling[edit]

Two systems of writing Tumbuka are in use: the traditional spelling (used for example in the Chitumbuka version of Wikipedia and in the newspaper Fuko), in which words such as banthu 'people' and chaka 'year' are written with 'b' and 'ch', and the new official spelling (used for example in the Citumbuka dictionary published online by the Centre for Language Studies and in the online Bible), in which the same words are written with 'ŵ' and 'c', e.g. ŵanthu and caka. (The sound 'ŵ' is a closely rounded [w] pronounced with the tongue in the close-i position.)[11] There is some uncertainty over where to write 'r' and where 'l', e.g. cakulya (Dictionary) or cakurya (Bible) 'food'. (In fact [l] and [r] are allophones of the same phoneme.)

Tumbuka nouns[edit]

As is usual with Bantu languages, Tumbuka nouns are grouped into different noun classes according to their singular and plural prefixes. Each class of noun has its own adjective, pronoun, and verb agreements, known as 'concords'. Where the agreements disagree with the prefix, the agreements take precedence in deciding the class of noun. For example, the noun katundu 'possessions', despite having the prefix ka-, is placed in class 1, since one says katundu uyu 'these possessions' using the class 1 demonstrative uyu. Malawians themselves (e.g. in the University of Malawi's Citumbuka dictionary) refer to the noun classes by traditional names such as "Mu-Ŵa-"; Bantu specialists, however, refer to the classes by numbers (1/2 etc.) corresponding to the noun-classes of other Bantu languages. Occasionally nouns do not correspond to the classes below, e.g. fumu 'chief' (class 9) irregularly has a plural mafumu in class 6.

Class 1/2 (Mu-Ŵa-)

Some nouns in this class lack the prefix Mu-:

  • Munthu pl. ŵanthu (banthu) = person
  • Muzungu pl. ŵazungu (bazungu) = foreigner, white man
  • Mwana pl. ŵana (bana) = child
  • Bulu pl. ŵabulu = donkey
  • Sibweni pl. ŵasibweni = maternal uncle
  • Katundu (no pl.) = goods, possessions

Class 3/4 (Mu-Mi-)

  • Mutu pl. mitu = head
  • Mkuyu pl. mikuyu = fig-tree
  • Moyo pl. miyoyo = life
  • Mtima pl. mitima = heart

Class 5/6 (Li-Ma-)

  • Bele pl. mabele = breast
  • Boma pl. maboma = government, district
  • Botolo pl. mabotolo = bottle
  • Fuko pl. mafuko = tribe, nation
  • Jiso pl. maso = eye
  • Maji (no singular) = water
  • Phiri pl. mapiri = hill
  • Suzgo pl. masuzgo = problem, trouble
  • Woko pl. mawoko = hand

Class 7/8 (Ci-Vi-)

  • Caka (chaka) pl. vyaka = year
  • Caro (charo) pl. vyaro = country, land
  • Ciŵeto (chibeto) pl. viŵeto (vibeto) = farm animal
  • Cidakwa (chidakwa) pl. vidakwa = drunkard
  • Cikoti (chikoti) pl. vikoti = whip

Class 9/10 (Yi-Zi-)

  • Mbale pl. mbale = plate
  • Ndalama pl. ndalama = money
  • Njelwa pl. njelwa = brick
  • Nkhuku pl. nkhuku = chicken
  • Somba pl. somba = fish

Class 11 (Lu-)

Some speakers treat words in this class as if they were in class 5/6.[12]

  • Lwande = side
  • Lumbiri = fame
  • Lulime = tongue

Class 12/13 (Ka-Tu-)

  • Kanthu pl. tunthu = small thing
  • Kamwana pl. tuŵana (tubana) = baby
  • Kayuni pl. tuyuni = bird
  • Tulo (no singular) = sleep

Class 14/6 (U-Ma-)

These nouns are frequently abstract and have no plural.

  • Usiku = night
  • Ulimi = farming
  • Ulalo pl. maulalo = bridge
  • Uta pl. mauta = bow

Class 15 (Ku-) Infinitive

  • Kugula = to buy, buying
  • Kwiba = to steal, stealing

Classes 16, 17, 18 (Pa-, Ku-, Mu-) Locative

  • Pasi = underneath
  • Kunthazi = in front, before
  • Mukati = inside

Tumbuka concords[edit]

Verbs, adjectives, numbers, possessives, and pronouns in Tumbuka have to agree with the noun referred to. This is done by means of prefixes or suffixes (called 'concords') which differ according to the class of noun. Class 1 has the greatest variety of concords, differing for pronouns, numbers, adjectives, verbs, and possessives:

  • Mwana uyu = this child
  • Mwana yumoza = one child
  • Mwana uyo = that child
  • Mwana yose = the whole child
  • Mwana waliyose = every child
  • Mwana wakamuwona = the child saw him
  • Mwana muchoko = the small child
  • Mwana wa Khumbo = Khumbo's child
  • Mwana wane = my child
  • Mwana wawona = the child has seen

Other noun classes have a smaller variety of concords, as can be seen from the table below:

Table of Tumbuka concords
noun English this num that all subj object adj of perf
1 mwana child uyu yu- uyo yose wa- -mu- mu- wa wa-
2 ŵana children aŵa ŵa- awo wose ŵa- -ŵa- ŵa- ŵa ŵa-
3 mutu head uwu wu- uwo wose wu- -wu- wu- wa wa-
4 mitu heads iyi yi- iyo yose yi- -yi- yi- ya ya-
5 jiso eye ili li- ilo lose li- -li- li- la la-
6 maso eyes agha gha- agho ghose gha- -gha- gha- gha gha-
7 caka year ici ci- ico cose ci- -ci- ci- ca ca-
8 vyaka years ivi vi- ivyo vyose vi- -vi- vi- vya vya-
9 nyumba house iyi yi- iyo yose yi- -yi- yi- ya ya-
10 nyumba houses izi zi- izo zose zi- -zi- zi- za za-
11 lwande side ulu lu- ulo lose lu- -lu- lu- lwa lwa-
(or: ili li- ilo lose li- -li- li- la la-)
12 kayuni bird aka ka- ako kose ka- -ka- ka- ka ka-
13 tuyuni birds utu tu- uto tose tu- -tu- tu- twa twa-
14 uta bow uwu wu- uwo wose wu- -wu- wu- wa wa-
15 kugula buying uku ku- uko kose ku- -ku- ku- kwa kwa-
16 pasi underneath apa pa- apo pose pa- -pa- pa- pa pa-
17 kunthazi in front uku ku- uko kose ku- -ku- ku- kwa kwa-
18 mukati inside umu mu- umo mose mu- -mu- mu- mwa mwa-

Linguistic descriptions[edit]

Some remarks on Tumbuka tenses can be found in Kiso (2012).

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).[13] 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 not on every word, but only on the last word of a phonological phrase; e.g. in the following sentence, only the second word has a tone, the first being toneless:[14]

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

A greater variety of tonal patterns is found in the ideophones (expressive words) of Tumbuka; for example Low (yoyoyo 'disintegrating into small pieces'), High (fyá: 'swooping low (of birds)'), High-Low (phúli 'sound of thing bursting'), and Low-High (yií 'sudden disappearance'), etc.[15]

Intonational tones are also used in Tumbuka; for example, in yes-no questions there is often a High-Low fall on the final syllable of the question:[16]

  • ku-limirâ-so ngô:mâ? 'are you also weeding the maize?'

There does not seem to be any consistent, direct correlation between tone in Tumbuka and focus.[17]

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.


The plural ba- (ŵa-) is often used for politeness when referring to elders:

  • Munyamata = boy
  • Banyamata (ŵanyamata) = boys
  • Musungwana = girl
  • Basungwana (ŵasungwana) = girls
  • Bamwali (ŵamwali) = young ladies
  • Banchebere (ŵanchebele) = a woman with babies
  • Bamama = mother
  • Badada = dad
  • Bagogo = grandmother
  • Babuya = grandmother, also used when addressing old female persons
  • Basekulu = grandfather
  • Bankazi = paternal aunt
  • Bamama bachoko / bakulu = maternal aunt usually your mother's younger/older sister
  • Basibweni = maternal uncle
  • Badada bachoko / bakulu = paternal uncle usually your father's younger/older brother
  • Mudumbu wane = my brother/ sister (for addressing a sibling of the opposite sex)
  • Muchoko wane / muzuna 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
  • Chigwere = hippo
  • 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. ^ a b Michigan State University African Studies Center information page.
  5. ^ Kiso (2012), pp.21ff.
  6. ^ University of Malawi (2006) Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi.
  7. ^ Kamwendo (2004), p.282.
  8. ^ University of Malawi (2006), p.27.
  9. ^ Kamwendo (2004), p.278.
  10. ^ See Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi (2006), pp.38-40 for a list of publications.
  11. ^ Atkins, Guy (1950) "Suggestions for an Amended Spelling and Word Division of Nyanja" Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.205.
  12. ^ Shiozaki (2004).
  13. ^ Downing (2008, 2012).
  14. ^ Downing (2008), p.123.
  15. ^ Moto (1999), pp.112-120.
  16. ^ Downing (2008), p.55.
  17. ^ Downing (2012), p.129.


  • Chase, Robert (2004). "A Comparison of Demonstratives in the Karonga and Henga Dialects of Tumbuka". Undergraduate paper. Amherst: Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Massachusetts.
  • 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.
  • Elmslie, Walter Angus (1923): Introductory Grammar of the Tumbuka Language. Livingstonia Mission Press.
  • Kamwendo, Gregory H. (2004). Kamwendo "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.
  • Kishindo, Pascal J. et Allan L. Lipenga (2006). Parlons citumbuka : langue et culture du Malawi et de la Zambie, L'Harmattan, Paris, Budapest, Kinshasa, 138 pages. ISBN 2-296-00470-9
  • Kiso, Andrea (2012). "Tense and Aspect in Chichewa, Citumbuka, and Cisena". Ph.D. Thesis. Stockholm University.
  • 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.
  • Shiozaki, Lisa (2004). "Concordial agreement in the Karonga dialect of Tumbuka". Undergraduate paper. Amherst: Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Massachusetts.
  • Turner, W.M. (1952). Tumbuka–Tonga–English Dictionary The Hetherwick Press, Blantyre, Nyasaland (now Malawi).
  • University of Malawi Centre for Language Studies (2006). "Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi".
  • Vail, Hazen Leroy (1971). "The noun classes of Tumbuka". African studies, v. 30, 1, p. 35-59.
  • Vail, Hazen Leroy (1972). "Aspects of the Tumbuka Verb". Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin.

External links[edit]