WHAT WAS THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE OF THE NGONI?

nullnullWhile there are some disagreements on what the original Ngoni language sounded like, it is quite clear to any student of Ngoni History that that language was certainly a Nguni language. Some examples of Nguni languages are Zulu, Xhosa, Swati and Ndebele. These language are simply dialects and a speaker of one of them can easily converse with a speaker from the other without needing a translator. It is like Mang’anja from Chichewa.

Some scholars have of late promoted the idea that the Ngoni language spoken in some areas of Mzimba is more similar to Siswati than Zulu. This is contrary to the stand taken by the early Scottish missionaries who said the language was most certainly Zulu.

With the little study that I have done Iam more inclined to the view that it was closer to Zulu. I have reached this point after considering the Ngoni songs in the Ngoni hymn books, ‘Izingoma zobukhristu’. It is quite clear from those songs that the language used is clearly closer to Zulu than any nguni language. As a student of Zulu I can state without any doubt that any zulu speaker would easily understand the songs.

It is clear from the Scottish missionaries that William Koyi, the famous Xhosa missionary understood the Ngoni language to be Zulu. It is said that when he met the Maseko Ngoni near Domwe he was surprised that the Maseko Ngoni had maintained many of Zulu clicks in their language. It should however be noted that at that time most of the ngoni speakers were the elderly while most of the young ones were speaking Nyanja. This could explain why the language is now almost dead in Ntcheu.

For those who think that the missionaries did not know what they were saying please read the book ‘Winning a Primitive People’ by Donald Fraser. In the book, Fraser,a Scottish missionary who worked among the Ngoni for sixteen years in the early 1900s makes an interesting observation about the creeping in of Tumbuka words into the Ngoni language. For instance the use of Tumbuka words such as ‘Mu’ in place of the Zulu or nguni ‘ni’ which is the the second person pronoun ‘you’. Thus for instance instead of saying ‘niyezwa na?’ which means ‘Do you hear?’ the Ngoni would say ‘muyezwa na?’ replacing the zulu pronoun ‘ni, with Tumbuka pronoun ‘mu’. He further points out that the zulu clicks had been replaced by non click sounding words.

Another book that can assist any student of history in understanding Ngoni history as seen in the eyes of the missionaries is, ‘Among Wild Angoni’, by WA Elmslie. Though obviously coloured by European biases that time it provides wonderful insights into the early history of the Ngoni in Malawi.

I am yet to visit Mpherembe area in Mzimba to hear the ngoni spoken there but I am reliably informed that indeed alot of tumbuka words have crept into it.

For anyone interested in learning the Zulu language a starting point would be the site, http://www.isizulu.net/. There you can find a free online dictionary, zulu grammar summary table, an audio zulu pronunciation guide for some words and some items for sale.var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”);document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”));
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