Chewa language

Chichewa, Chinyanja
Native to Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe
Native speakers
12 million (2007)[1]
Latin (Chewa alphabet)
Chewa Braille
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ny
ISO 639-2 nya
ISO 639-3 nya
Glottolog nyan1308[2]
N.30 (N.31, N.121)[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUS-xaa – xag

Chewa, also known as Nyanja, is a language of the Bantu language family. The noun class prefix chi- is used for languages,[4] so the language is also called Chichewa and Chinyanja (spelled 'Cinyanja' in Zambia, and 'Cinianja' in Mozambique). In Malawi, the name was officially changed from Chinyanja to Chichewa in 1968 at the insistence of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda (himself of the Chewa tribe), and this is still the name most commonly used in Malawi today.[5] In Zambia, Chewa is spoken by other people like the Ngoni and the Kunda, so a more neutral name, Chinyanja '(language) of the lake' (referring to Lake Malawi), is used instead of Chichewa.

Chewa belongs to the same language group (Guthrie Zone N) as Tumbuka, Sena, [6] and Nsenga.


Chewa is the most widely known language of Malawi, spoken mostly in the Central and Southern Regions of that country.[7] "It is also one of the seven official African languages of Zambia, where it is spoken mostly in the Eastern Province. It is also spoken in Mozambique, especially in the provinces of Tete and Niassa, as well as in Zimbabwe where, according to some estimates, it ranks as the third-most widely used local language, after Shona and Northern Ndebele."[8] It was one of the 55 languages featured on the Voyager spacecraft.[9]


The Chewa were a branch of the Maravi people who lived in the Eastern Province of Zambia and in northern Mozambique as far south as the River Zambezi from the 16th century or earlier.[10][11]

The name "Chewa" (in the form Chévas) itself is first recorded by António Gamitto, who at the age of 26 in 1831 was appointed as second-in-command of an expedition from Tete to the court of King Kazembe in what is now Zambia. His route took him through the country of King Undi west of the Dzalanyama mountains, across a corner of present-day Malawi and on into Zambia.[12] Later he wrote an account including some ethnographic and linguistic notes and vocabularies. According to Gamitto, the Malawi people (Maraves) were those ruled by King Undi south of the Chambwe stream (not far south of the present border between Mozambique and Zambia), while the Chewa lived north of the Chambwe.[13]

Apart from a few words recorded by Gamitto, the first extensive record of the Chewa language was made by Johannes Rebmann in his Dictionary of the Kiniassa Language, published in 1877 but written in 1853-4. Rebmann was a missionary living near Mombasa in Kenya, and he obtained his information from a Malawian slave, known by the Swahili name Salimini, who had been captured in Malawi some ten years earlier.[14] Salimini, who came from a place called Mphande apparently in the Lilongwe region, also noted some differences between his own dialect (which he called Kikamtunda, the language of the plateau) and the Maravi dialect (Kimaravi) spoken further south; for example, the Maravi gave the name mombo to the tree which he himself called kamphoni.[15]

The first grammar, A Grammar of the Chinyanja language as spoken at Lake Nyasa with Chinyanja–English and English–Chinyanja vocabulary, was written by Alexander Riddel in 1880 and partial translations of the Bible were made at the end of 19th century. Further early grammars and vocabularies include A vocabulary of English–Chinyanja and Chinyanja–English: as spoken at Likoma, Lake Nyasa[16] and A grammar of Chinyanja, a language spoken in British Central Africa, on and near the shores of Lake Nyasa,[17] by George Henry (1891). The whole Bible was translated into the Likoma Island dialect of Nyanja by William Percival Johnson and published as Chikalakala choyera : ndicho Malangano ya Kale ndi Malangano ya Chapano in 1912.[18]

Another early grammar, concentrating on the Kasungu dialect of Chewa, was Mark Hanna Watkins' A Grammar of Chichewa (1937). This book, the first grammar of an African language to be written by an American, was a work of cooperation between a young black PhD student and another young black student, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who in 1966 was to become the first President of the Republic of Malawi.[19][20]

The language is changing every day. This is because people are mixing certain words of English with Chichewa.[21]



Chewa has five vowels: a, e, i, o, u. Long or double vowels are sometimes found, e.g. áákúlu 'big' (class 2), kufúula 'to shout'.[22] When a word comes at the end of a phrase, its penultimate vowel tends to be lengthened,[23] except for non-Chewa names and words, such as Muthárika or ófesi, in which the penultimate vowel always remains short. The added 'u' or 'i' in borrowed words such as láputopu 'laptop' or íntaneti 'internet' tends to be silent or barely pronounced.


In Chewa consonants are sometimes followed by a vowel, sometimes by w, and sometimes by y:

The place of bya is taken by the palatalised affricate bza, and the place of gya is taken by ja.

Some consonants can also be preceded by a homorganic nasal:

The possible consonant combinations can thus be arranged on a table as follows:

Table of Chewa consonants
voiced plain aspirated nasalised voiced nasalised aspirated nasal semivowel/ liquid
labial ba
dental da
velar/ palatal ga
labio-dental va
sibilant za
affricate dza

The spelling used here is that introduced in 1973,[24] which is the one generally in use in the Malawi at the present time, replacing the Chinyanja Orthography Rules of 1931.[25]

Notes on the consonants


Main article: Chichewa tones

Like most other Bantu languages, Chewa is a tonal language; that is to say, the pitch of the syllables (high or low) plays an important role in it. Tone is used in various ways in the language. First of all, each word has its own tonal pattern, for example:[39]

Usually there is only one high tone in a word (generally on one of the last three syllables), or none. However, in compound words there can be more than one high tone, for example:

A second important use of tone is in the verb. Each tense of the verb has its own characteristic tonal pattern (negative tenses usually have a different pattern from positive ones).[40] For example, the present habitual has high tones on the initial syllable and the penultimate, the other syllables being low:

The recent past continuous, on the other hand, has a tone on the third syllable:

Tones can also indicate whether a verb is being used in an main clause or in a dependent clause such as a relative clause:[41][42]

A third use of tones in Chewa is to show phrasing and sentence intonation. For example, immediately before a pause in the middle of a sentence the speaker's voice tends to rise up; this rise is referred to as a boundary tone.[43] Other intonational tones are sometimes heard, for example a rising or falling tone at the end of a yes-no question.[44]


Noun classes

Chewa nouns are divided for convenience into a number of classes, which are referred to by the Malawians themselves by names such as "Mu-A-",[45] but by Bantu specialists by numbers such as "1/2", corresponding to the classes in other Bantu languages. Conventionally, they are grouped into pairs of singular and plural. However, irregular pairings are also possible, especially with loanwords; for example, bánki 'bank', which takes the concords of class 9 in the singular, has a plural mabánki (class 6).[46]

When assigning nouns to a particular class, initially the prefix of the noun is used. Where there is no prefix, or where the prefix is ambiguous, the concords (see below) are used as a guide to the noun class. For example, katúndu 'possessions' is put in class 1, since it takes the class 1 demonstrative uyu 'this'.[47]

Some nouns belong to one class only, e.g. tomáto 'tomato(es)' (class 1), mowa 'beer' (class 3), malayá 'shirt(s)' (class 6), udzudzú 'mosquito(es)' (class 14), and do not change between singular and plural. Despite this, such words can still be counted if appropriate: tomáto muwíri 'two tomatoes', mowa uwíri 'two beers', malayá amódzi 'one shirt', udzudzú umódzi 'one mosquito'.[48]

Class 11 (Lu-) is no longer found in Chewa. Words like lumo 'razor' and lusó 'skill' are considered to belong to class 5/6 (Li-Ma-) and take the concords of that class.[49]

Infinitive class:

Locative classes:


According to the class of noun, verbs, pronouns, numbers, and adjectives take certain prefixes called concords. These operate in much the same way as genders in European languages. For example:

There are fewer concords in present-day Chewa than there were in the 19th century, since class 8 (formerly using idzi or ibzi/ibvi/ivi 'these')[50] has now adopted the concords of class 10 (izi), class 6 (formerly aya 'these')[51] has adopted the concords of class 2 (awa), and class 14 (ubu)[52] has now adopted the concords of class 3 (uwu). Class 11 (Lu-) had already been assimilated to class 5 even in the 19th century in Chewa, but it still exists in some dialects of the neighbouring language Tumbuka. In addition, classes 4 and 9, and classes 15 and 17 have identical concords, so the total number of concord sets (singular and plural) is now twelve.

Class 1 has the greatest variety of concords, as can be seen below:

Using yu or ye:

Using a:

Using mu or m' :

Using u or w:

Using both w and m(u):

Class 2 (the plural of class 1) is often used for respect when referring to elders, e.g. agógo angá = 'my grandparent(s)'.

In class 2 and 6 ó sometimes becomes (wónse, ndiwó for ónse, ndió etc.). The plural personal pronoun is always iwó 'they'.

Table of Chewa concords
noun English this that all subj object num rem of of+vb other adj
1 mwanáchilduyuuyoyé-a-mu/m-m/(mu)-ujawó-wínawám-
2 anáchildrenawaawoó-a--a/wa-a-ajaáó-énaáa-
3 mutúheaduwuuwowó-u--u-u-ujawó-wínawau-
4 mitúheadsiyiiyoyó-i--i/yi-i-ijayó-ínayái-
5 dísoeyeiliiloló-li--li-li-lijaló-línaláli-
6 masóeyesawaawoó-a--wa-a-ajaáó-énaáa-
7 chakáyearichiichochó-chi--chi-chi-chijacháchó-chínacháchi-
8 zakáyearsiziizozó-zi--zi-zi-zijazó-zínazázi-
9 nyumbáhouseiyiiyoyó-i--i/yi-i-ijayó-ínayái-
10 nyumbáhousesiziizozó-zi--zi-zi-zijazó-zínazázi-
12 kamwanábabyakaakokó-ka--ka-ka-kajakó-kénakáka-
13 tianábabiesitiitotó-ti--ti-ti-tijató-tínatáti-
14 utábowuwuuwowó-u--u-u-ujawó-wínawáu-
15 kugúlabuyingukuukokó-ku--ku-ku-kujakwákó-kwínakwáku-
16 pansíunderneathapaapopó-pa--pa-pa-pajapó-pénapápa-
17 kutsogolóin frontukuukokó-ku--ku-ku-kujakwákó-kwínakwáku-
18 mkatíinsideumuumomó-m/mu--mu-m/mu-mujamwámó-mwínamwám'-



After the verb stem one or more extensions may be added. The extensions modify the meaning of the verb, for example:

Extensions which have an intensive or stative meaning tend to have a high tone, e.g. yang'anitsitsá 'look carefully', pitirirá 'carry on, keep going', guliká 'be saleable, get bought'; however, there are some exceptions such as oneka 'seem'.[53]

Most extensions, apart from the reciprocal -ana 'one another', have two possible forms, e.g. -ira/-era, -ula/-ola. The forms with e and o are used if the verb stem is monosyllabic or has an e or o in it, e.g. dy-er-a 'eat with', ton-ol-a 'remove grains of corn from the cob', chepetsa 'reduce'; the forms with i and u are used when the verb stem has an a, i, or u, as with gula above.[54]


Chichewa verbs (with the exception of the imperative mood and infinitive) begin with a prefix agreeing grammatically with the subject.[55] This prefix is referred to by some grammarians as the 'subject-marker'.[56]

The subject-marker can be:

An example of a locative subject-marker might be:


An object-marker can also optionally be added to the verb; if one is added it goes immediately before the verb-stem:[60]

The object-marker can be:

Formation of tenses

Tenses in Chichewa are differentiated in two ways, by their tense-marker (or tense-infix), and by their tonal pattern. Sometimes two tenses have the same tense-marker and differ in their tonal pattern alone. In the following examples, the tense-marker is underlined:[62][63]

One tense has no tense-marker:

Some tenses refer to potentiality or obligation as well as time:

To these can be added the subjunctive mood:

Tenses can be modified further by adding certain other infixes, called 'aspect-markers', after the tense-marker. These are -má- 'always, usually' -ká- 'go and', -dzá 'come and' or 'in future', and -ngo- 'only', 'just'. These infixes can also be used on their own, as tense-markers in their own right (compare the use of -ma- and -dza- in the list of tenses above). For example:

Compound tenses, such as the following, are also found in Chichewa:[67]

Idiomatic tenses

Chewa tenses differ in some respects from the tenses met with in European languages. For example, there are four tenses which can be used for referring to events or actions in the past:


The difference between them is that the first pair would normally be used for actions of which the effect is still evident; that is to say, they would usually imply that the speaker still has the item which was bought.[68] The last two generally carry an implication that the effect of the action is no longer evident, that is to say they would usually imply that the speaker no longer has the item in question.[69][70] In other words, they appear to belong to the type of tense known as discontinuous past.[71]

However, the second and third of the above tenses can also be used in narrative as simple past tenses, describing events of today or of some time ago respectively, without the implications mentioned above.[72]

Another tense not found in European languages is the -ká- future, which 'might presuppose an unspoken conditional clause':[73]

Negative tenses

Negative tenses, if they are main verbs, are made with the prefix sí-. The tones of negative verbs usually differ from those of positive ones, and generally put a tone on the penultimate syllable, except in the present simple tense.[74] The negative of the -ná- tense has the ending -e instead of -a:

Infinitives, participial verbs, and the subjunctive make their negative with -sa-, which is added after the subject-prefix instead of before it, and has a tone on the penultimate syllable:

Dependent clauses

The tenses used in most kinds of dependent or subordinate clauses (except those starting with kutí 'that') differ from those used in main clauses. Dependent verbs often have a tone on the first syllable. Sometimes this change of tone alone is sufficient to show that the verb is being used in a dependent clause.[76][77] Compare for example:

Other commonly used dependent tenses are the following (the last of these is toneless):[78][79]

Chewa literature

Story-writers and playwrights

The following have written published stories, novels, or plays in the Chewa language:


Town Nyanja (Zambia)

Town Nyanja
Native to Zambia
Region Lusaka
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None

An urban variety of Nyanja, sometimes called Town Nyanja, is the lingua franca of the Zambian capital Lusaka and is widely spoken as a second language throughout Zambia. This is a distinctive Nyanja dialect with some features of Nsenga, although the language also incorporates large numbers of English-derived words, as well as showing influence from other Zambian languages such as Bemba. Town Nyanja has no official status, and the presence of large numbers of loanwords and colloquial expressions has given rise to the misconception that it is an unstructured mixture of languages or a form of slang.

The fact that the standard Nyanja used in schools differs dramatically from the variety actually spoken in Lusaka has been identified as a barrier to the acquisition of literacy among Zambian children.[80]

Sample phrases

English Chewa (Malawi) Town Nyanja (Lusaka)
How are you? Muli bwanji? Muli bwanji?
I'm fine Ndili bwino Nili bwino / Nili mushe
Thank you Zikomo Zikomo
Yes Inde Ee
No Iyayi/Ayi Iyayi
What's your name? Dzina lanu ndi ndani? Zina yanu ndimwe bandani?
My name is... Dzina langa ndine... Zina yanga ndine...
How many children do you have? Muli ndi ana angati? Muli na bana bangati?
I have two children Ndili ndi ana awiri Nili na bana babili
I want... Ndikufuna... Nifuna...
Food Chakudya Vakudya
Water Madzi Manzi
How much is it? Ndi zingati? Ni zingati?
See you tomorrow Tionana mmawa Tizaonana mailo
I love you Ndimakukonda Nikukonda


  1. Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Nyanja". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. 1 2 Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. cf. Kiswahili for the Swahili language.
  5. Kishindo (2001), p.265.
  6. Kiso (2012), pp.21ff.
  7. Mchombo (2006).
  8. Malawian Writers and Their Country, edited by Bridgette Kasuka, published on, page 143
  9. "Voyager Greetings"
  10. Marwick (1963)
  11. Newitt (1982).
  12. Marwick (1964).
  13. Marwick (1963), p.383.
  14. Rebman (1877), preface.
  15. Rebmann (1877) s.v. M'ombo.
  16. Woodward, M. E. 1895.
  17. Henry, George. 1891.
  18. The UMCA in Malawi, p 126, James Tengatenga, 2010: "Two important pieces of work have been accomplished during these later years. First, the completion by Archdeacon Johnson of the Bible in Chinyanja, and secondly, the completed Chinyanja prayer book in 1908."
  19. Watkins (1937), p.7.
  20. Wade-Lewis (2005).
  21. Batteen (2005).
  22. Atkins (1950), p.201.
  23. Downing & Pompino-Marschall (2013).
  24. See Kishindo (2001), p.267.
  25. Atkins (1950), p.200.
  26. Scotton & Orr (1980), p.15; Atkins (1950), p.208.
  27. Atkins (1950), p.208.
  28. Stevick (1965), p.xii.
  29. Scotton & Orr (1980), p.18.
  30. Atkins (1950), p.207; Stevick et al. (1965), p.xii.
  31. Kishindo (2001), p.268.
  32. Atkins (1950), p.209.
  33. Watkins (1937), p. 14.
  34. Atkins (1950), p.204.
  35. Atkins (1950), p.205.
  36. Kishindo (2001), p.270.
  37. Watkins (1937), p.13.
  38. Mchombo (2004), p.10.
  39. Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja (2002).
  40. Mtenje (1986), pp.195; 203-4; 244ff; Mtenje (1987), p.173.
  41. Stevick et al. (1965), p.147.
  42. Mchombo (2004), pp.17-18.
  43. Kanerva (1990), p.147.
  44. Hullquist (1988), p.145.
  45. E.g. Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja.
  46. Paas (2015).
  47. Kunkeyani (2007), p.154.
  48. Paas (2015) s.v.
  49. Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja.
  50. Scott & Hetherwick (1929), s.v. Ibsi; Rebmann (1877) s.v. Chiko, Psiwili/Pfiwili; Watkins (1937), p.37.
  51. Rebmann (1877) s.v. Aya, Mame, Mano, Yonse; cf Goodson (2011).
  52. Rebmann (1877), s.v. Uda; Watkins (1937), p.33-4.
  53. Hyman & Mtenje (1999b).
  54. Salaun, p.78.
  55. Maxson (2011), pp.19ff.
  56. Hyman & Mtenje (1999a).
  57. Maxson (2011), p.52.
  58. Maxson (2011), p.36.
  59. Salaun, p.16.
  60. Maxson (2011), pp.26ff.
  61. Maxson (2011), p.64.
  62. Maxson (2011), pp.39ff, 77ff.
  63. For tones, Mtenje (1986).
  64. Maxson (2011), p.126.
  65. Maxson (2011), p.115.
  66. Salaun, p.49.
  67. Kiso (2012), p.107.
  68. Watkins (1937), pp.55-6.
  69. Watkins (1937), pp.55-6.
  70. Maxson (2011), p.77.
  71. Kiso (2012), p.118.
  72. Kiso (2012), pp.110-111.
  73. Maxson (2011), p.116.
  74. Mtenje (1986), p.244ff.
  75. Stevick et al. (1965), p.222.
  76. Mchombo (2004), pp.17-18.
  77. Stevick et al. (1965), p.147.
  78. Salaun, p.70
  79. Kanerva (1990), p.24.
  80. Williams, E (1998). Investigating bilingual literacy: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia (Education Research Paper No. 24). Department for International Development.


External links

Nyanja edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Nyanja phrasebook.
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/23/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.