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Yao language

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Native toMalawi, Mozambique, Tanzania
Native speakers
3.7 million (2017–2020)[1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2yao
ISO 639-3yao
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Yao is a Bantu language in Africa with approximately two million speakers in Malawi, and half a million each in Tanzania and Mozambique. There are also some speakers in Zambia. In Malawi, the main dialect is Mangochi, mostly spoken around Lake Malawi. In Mozambique, the main dialects are Makale and Massaninga. The language has also gone by several other names in English, including chiYao or ciYao (the prefixed form), Achawa, Adsawa, Adsoa, Ajawa, Ayawa, Ayo, Ayao, Djao, Haiao, Hiao, Hyao, Jao, Veiao, and waJao.[1]

In Malawi, most Yao speakers live in the Southern Region near the southeast tip of Lake Malawi and bordering Mozambique to the east. In Mozambique most speakers live in Niassa Province from the eastern shore of Lake Malawi (Lago Niassa) to the Lugenda River up to where it meets the Rovuma River. In Tanzania most speakers live in the south central, Mtwara Region, Masasi district and in the Ruvuma Region, Tunduru district, east of Lake Malawi along the Mozambican border.

In common with very many vernacular languages in Africa, it has historically enjoyed little official recognition, and literary work in the region where Yao is spoken has taken place in such languages as Arabic, English, German and Portuguese.


The phonology of Yao is shown below.[4]


Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
voiceless p t t͡ʃ k
voiced b d d͡ʒ ɡ
Fricative s
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Approximant ʋ l j w


Front Central Back
Close i     u    
Mid e     o    
Open a    


Like most Bantu languages, tone plays a role in Yao phonology and morphology. See Mtenje (1990) for discussion of Malawian Yao tone. See Ngunga (1997) for detailed presentation of the segmental phonology of Mozambican Yao.


As in English, unvoiced plosives are aspirated and voiced plosives are not. There are conventionally only five 'pure' vowels, viz. a, e, i, o, u, though there is some variation in vowel length. Yao is minimally tonal language, as is common in Bantu languages.

In each of the main three countries where Yao is spoken, the orthography differs widely, and there is a low literacy rate. In Tanzania, the orthography is based on that of Swahili, whereas in Malawi it is based on that of Chewa. The Malawian form uses the following characters:

Letter: A B Ch D E G I J/Dy K L Ly M N Ng' Ny O P S T U W Ŵ Y
Value: a b d e~ɛ ɡ i k l ʎ m n ŋ ɲ ɔ~o p ʂ u w ʋ j

Macrons can be used to prevent ambiguity that would otherwise arise due to the lack of representation of vowel length.[5][6]


Yao is an SVO language. Like all Bantu languages, Yao is agglutinative, with a highly regular paradigm of verbal inflection, and its nouns placed in a variety of classes indicated by prefixes, these partially corresponding to actual categories of objects or people. To each class is associated a characteristic, used in the formation of pronouns and concord links, prefixes used before verbs governed by, and adjectives describing, a noun of the given class.

Noun classes[edit]

Class Prefix Class characteristic Used for
1 m-, mu-, mw- ju persons singular
2 ŵa-, a-, acha-, achi- ŵa persons plural
3 m-, mu-, mw- u living things singular
4 mi- ji living things plural
5 li-, ly- li miscellaneous singular
6 ma- ga plurals of class 5
7 chi-, ch'- chi miscellaneous singular
8 i-, y- i plurals of class 7
9 n-, ny-, mb-, (nw-) ji miscellaneous singular
10 n-, ny-, mb-, (nw-) si plurals of class 9
11 lu- lu like 9, also singulars of class 10
12 ka- ka diminutives singular
13 tu- tu plurals of class 13
14 u- u collective and abstract, no plural; also some singulars of class 6
15 ku, kw- ku infinitives
16 (pa-) pa locality (at)
17 (ku-, kwa-) ku locality (to)
18 (mu-, mwa-) mu locality (in)

The corresponding concord links are identical to the nominal prefixes except in the cases of classes 1 and 2, which have concord links 'mb-' and 'a-' respectively. The convention of including classes 16, 17 and 18 deviates from the traditional Bantu system, their prefixes being more properly prepositional or case determiners.

Verbal forms[edit]

The personal forms are given below, with informal forms given in brackets.

Personal form prefix English equivalent (pronoun)
n-, ni- I
(u-) (thou)
a- he, she, it, you
tu- we
m-, mu-, mw- you
ŵa-, a- they (he, you)

There are affirmative and negative forms of the verb, each with approximately the following divisions:

Indicative mood[edit]

As in many Bantu languages, this is characterised by an ending 'a'. Present, immediate future, present perfect, past and past perfect tenses are distinguished, the last being irregular in formation.

Subjunctive mood[edit]

The subjunctive mood is similar in form to the indicative, but as in many Bantu languages, the final 'a' is changed to 'e'. It can be used as a polite imperative, and is usually associated with subordinate clauses.


To form the 'ordinary' (often less polite) imperative, the simple stem may be used, or 'n' may be prefixed to the indicative, or the continuative suffixes '-ga' or '-je' may be added.


The personal pronouns relate only to classes 1 and 2. Other pronouns are formed from the class links. These pronouns, as a common Bantu feature, are absolute, in that they stand alone from the rest of the sentence: for nominative accusative and prepositional forms, affixes must be used. The third person pronouns depend on noun class, as explained above.

Absolute pronoun English equivalent (subject pronoun, object pronoun)
une I, me
(ugwe) thou, thee
uwe we, us
umwe you

These forms may be combined according to certain normal Bantu laws of vowel elision with prefixes such as 'na' (with, and).

There are also several demonstratives, most of which form triples ('this one', 'that one nearby', and 'that one far away')- that is, triple deixis is used.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Yao at Ethnologue (26th ed., 2023) Closed access icon
  2. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  3. ^ "The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland". Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 25 April 1872 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ Ngunga, Armindo Saúl Atelela (1997). Lexical Phonology and Morphology in the Ciyao Verb Stem. Ann Arbor: UMI.
  5. ^ Sanderson, Meredith (1922). A Yao Grammar. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.
  6. ^ Ngunga, Armindo (2002). "Elementos de gramática da língua Yao". Imprensa Universitária, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, Maputo.