Northern Ndebele language

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Northern Ndebele
Mthwakazi Ndebele
RegionLimpopo, Matabeleland South in Zimbabwe; North-East District in Botswana
EthnicityNorthern Ndebele people
Native speakers
2.6 million [1] (2023)[2]
Latin script
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1nd – North Ndebele
ISO 639-2nde – North Ndebele
ISO 639-3nde – North Ndebele
Linguasphere99-AUT-fk incl.
varieties 99-AUT-fka
to 99-AUT-fkd
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
The Ndebele Language
PeopleamaNdebele (prev. Matabele)
isiNdebele dictionary, 1910

Northern Ndebele (English: /ɛndəˈbl/), also called Ndebele, isiNdebele saseNyakatho, Zimbabwean Ndebele[2][4] or North Ndebele,[5][6] associated with the term Matabele, is a Bantu language spoken by the Northern Ndebele people which belongs to the Nguni group of languages.

As a start and to give some context, Ndebele is a term used to refer to a collection of many different African cultures in Zimbabwe. It perhaps by default became a 'language' (for lack of better word) spoken predominantly by the descendants of Mzilikazi.[7] As a language, it is by no means similar to the Ndebele language spoken in kwaNdebele in South Africa although, like many Nguni dialects, some words will be shared. Many of the natives that were colonized by the Matabele were assimilated into Mzilikazi's kingdom to create a version of isiZulu. The Matebele people of Zimbabwe descend from followers of the Zulu leader Mzilikazi (one of Zulu King Shaka's generals), who left the Zulu Kingdom in the early 19th century, during the Mfecane, arriving in present-day Zimbabwe in 1839.

Although there are some differences in grammar, lexicon and intonation between Zulu and Northern Ndebele, the two languages share more than 85% of their lexicon.[8] To prominent Nguni linguists like Anthony Trevor Cope and Cyril Nyembezi, Northern Ndebele is a dialect of Zulu. To others like Langa Khumalo, it is a language. Distinguishing between a language and a dialect for language varieties that are very similar is difficult, with the decision often being based not on linguistic but on political criteria.[9][10][11]

Northern Ndebele and Southern Ndebele (or Transvaal Ndebele), which is spoken in South Africa, are separate but related languages with some degree of mutual intelligibility, although the former is more closely related to Zulu. Southern Ndebele, while maintaining its Nguni roots, has been influenced by the Sotho languages.[12]



Northern Ndebele consonants
Bilabial Labio-
Velar Glottal
central lateral
Nasal plain m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ɲ ⟨ny⟩ ŋ ⟨ngh⟩
depressed ⟨m⟩ ⟨n⟩ ɲʱ ⟨ny⟩ ŋʱ ⟨ngh⟩
Plosive ejective ⟨p⟩ ⟨t⟩ ⟨k⟩
voiced b ⟨bh⟩ d ⟨d⟩ ɡ ⟨ɡ⟩
aspirated ⟨ph⟩ ⟨th⟩ ⟨kh⟩
prenasalized ᵐp ⟨mp⟩ ⁿt ⟨nt⟩ ᵑk ⟨nk⟩
prenasalized (vd.) ᵐb ⟨mb⟩ ⁿd ⟨nd⟩ ᵑɡ ⟨ng⟩
Affricate ejective tsʼ ⟨ts⟩ tʃʼ ⟨tj⟩ kxʼ ⟨kl⟩
aspirated tsʰ ⟨tsh⟩ tʃʰ ⟨tjh⟩
voiced ⟨j⟩
prenasalized ejective ⁿtsʼ ⟨nts⟩ ᶮtʃʼ ⟨ntjh⟩ ᵑkxʼ ⟨nkl⟩
prenasalized voiced ᶮdʒ ⟨nj⟩
Fricative plain f ⟨f⟩ s ⟨s⟩ ɬ ⟨hl⟩ ʃ ⟨sh⟩ h ⟨h⟩
voiced (depr.) βʱ ⟨b⟩ ⟨v⟩ ⟨z⟩ ʒʱ ⟨zh⟩ (ɣʱ ⟨k⟩) (ɦ ⟨h⟩)
voiced (non-depr.) β ⟨b⟩ ɮ ⟨dl⟩ (ɣ ⟨k⟩)
prenasalized ᶬf ⟨mf⟩ ⁿs ⟨ns⟩ ⁿɬ ⟨nhl⟩
prenasalized (vd.) ᶬv ⟨mv⟩ ⁿz ⟨nz⟩ ⁿɮ ⟨ndl⟩
Sonorant plain w ⟨w⟩ r ⟨r⟩ l ⟨l⟩ j ⟨y⟩
depressed ⟨w⟩ ⟨l⟩ ⟨y⟩

Many consonant sounds may result in depressed (or breathy) allophones. Alveolar consonants, t, d, and n, may have dentalized allophones of [t̪ʼ, d̪, n̪]. Consonants k and h can result in allophones of [ɣ, ɣʱ] and [ɦ].

Ndebele /t͡ʃ/ generally correspond to Zulu /ʃ/.[11]

Click consonants[edit]

Northern Ndebele clicks
Denti-alveolar Post-alveolar
central lateral
Click tenuis ⟨c⟩ k! ⟨q⟩ ⟨x⟩
aspirated kǀʰ ⟨ch⟩ k!ʰ ⟨qh⟩ kǁʰ ⟨xh⟩
depressed ɡǀʱ ⟨gc⟩ ɡ!ʱ ⟨gq⟩ ɡǁʱ ⟨gx⟩
nasalized ŋǀ ⟨nc⟩ ŋ! ⟨nq⟩ ŋǁ ⟨nx⟩
nasalized (depr.) ŋǀʱ ⟨ngc⟩ ŋ!ʱ ⟨ngq⟩ ŋǁʱ ⟨ngx⟩

In Northern Ndebele, there are fifteen click consonants.

The five clicks spelled with a c [ǀ] are made by placing the tip of the tongue against the front upper teeth and gums, the centre of the tongue is depressed and the tip of the tongue is drawn backwards. The resulting sound is similar to the sound used in English to express annoyance.[13] Some examples are cina (end), cela (ask).[14]

The five clicks spelled with a q [!] are made by raising the back of the tongue to touch the soft palate and touching the gums with the sides and tip of the tongue. The centre of the tongue is depressed and the tip drawn quickly away from the gum. The resulting sound is like the "pop" heard when quickly removing the cork from a bottle.[13] Some examples are qalisa (start), qeda (finish).[14]

The five clicks spelled with a x [ǁ] are made by placing the tongue so that the back of the tongue touches the soft palate and the sides and tip of the tongue touch the gums. One side of the tongue is quickly withdrawn from the gums.[13] Some examples are xoxa (discuss), ixoxo (frog).[14]


There are five vowel phonemes, written with the letters a, e, i, o, u.

  • a is pronounced [a], approximately like a in father; e.g. abantwana (children)
  • e is pronounced [ɛ] or [e], sometimes like e in bed; e.g. emoyeni (in the air)
  • i is pronounced [i], like ee in see; e.g. siza (help)
  • o is pronounced [ɔ] or [o], sometimes approximately like o in bone; e.g. okhokho (ancestors)
  • u is pronounced [u], like oo in soon; e.g. umuntu (person)


Months in Northern and Southern Ndebele

English Northern Ndebele (Zimbabwe) Southern Ndebele (South Africa) Zulu (South Africa)
January uZibandlela uTjhirhweni uMasingane
February uNhlolanja uMhlolanja uNhlolanja
March uMbimbitho uNtaka uNdasa
April uMabasa uSihlabantangana UMbasa
May uNkwenkwezi uMrhayili UNhlaba
June uNhlangula uMgwengweni UNhlangulana
July uNtulikazi uVelabahlinze uNtulikazi
August uNcwabakazi uRhoboyi UNcwaba
September uMpandula uKhukhulamungu uMandulo
October uMfumfu uSewula uMfumfu
November uLwezi uSinyikhaba uLwezi
December uMpalakazi uNobayeni uZibandlela


Ndebele grammar is similar to that of Zulu, with some distinct differences. Northern Ndebele is a Nguni language and is to some extent also mutually intelligible with Swati and Xhosa,possesses several click sounds typical of Southern African languages the predominant language in the Eastern Cape.


The Northern Ndebele noun consists of two essential parts, the prefix and the stem. Using the prefixes, nouns can be grouped into noun classes, which are numbered consecutively, to ease comparison with other Bantu languages.

The following table gives an overview of Northern Ndebele noun classes, arranged according to singular-plural pairs.

Class Singular Plural
1/2 um(u)-1 aba-, abe-
1a/2a u- o-
3/4 um(u)-1 imi-
5/6 i-, ili- ama-
7/8 is(i)- iz(i)-
9/10 iN- iziN-
11/10 u-, ulu-
14 ubu-, ub-, utsh-
15 uku-
17 uku-

1 umu- replaces um- before monosyllabic stems, e. g. umuntu (person).


Verbs are marked with the following prefixes in agreement with the noun class of the subject and the object:

Subject marker Object marker
1st sing. ngi- -ngi-
2nd sing. u- -wu-
1st plur. si- -si-
2nd plur. li- -li-
1 u- -m(u)-
2 ba- -ba-
3 u- -m(u)-
4 i- -yi-
5 li- -li-
6 a- -wa-
7 si- -si-
8 zi- -zi-
9 i- -yi-
10 zi- -zi-
11 lu- -lu-
14 bu- -bu-
15 ku- -ku-
17 ku- -ku-
reflexive -zi-

While subject-verb agreement is obligatory, object marking is not, and only appears when the object is given in the discourse.[15] The object marker attaches closer to the verb root when it occurs (with the following notations: A - augment vowel; 1 - class 1 nominal prefix, etc; 1s - class 1 subject agreement, etc; FUT - future; 1o - class 1 object marker, etc):








U-Thabani u-za-yi-pheka i-nyama

A-1Thabani 1s-FUT-9o-cook A-9meat

"Thabani will cook the meat."[15]

There is evidence from Zulu that object markers are an evolution of pronominal clitics to be agreement markers,[16] which might also be the case for Northern Ndebele, given the linguistic similarity between the languages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Northern Ndebele. "Zimbabwean Ndebele". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ a b Ndebele at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ Mpofu, I. N. (2011). Sithini isiNdebele? (1st ed.). Harare, Zimbabwe: Radiant Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-7974-4280-1. OCLC 755905987.
  5. ^ "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: nde". ISO 639-2 Registration Authority - Library of Congress. Archived from the original on 2017-12-22. Retrieved 2017-07-04. Name: North Ndebele
  6. ^ "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: nde". ISO 639-3 Registration Authority - SIL International. Archived from the original on 2017-11-01. Retrieved 2017-07-04. Name: North Ndebele
  7. ^ Sibanda, Julius (2002). Isikithi (2nd ed.). Harare Zimbabwe: College Press. p. 7. ISBN 1779001371.
  8. ^ Langa Khumalo, “Language Contact and Lexical Change: A Lexicographical Terminographical Interface in Zimbabwean Ndebele,” Lexikos 14, no. 108 (2004).
  9. ^ Anthony Cope, “A Consolidated Classification of the Bantu Languages,” African Studies 30, nos. 3–4 1971): 213–36.
  10. ^ Nyembezi, C.L.S., 1957. Learn Zulu, Cape Town: Shuter & SHooter
  11. ^ a b D.K. Rycroft “Ndebele and Zulu: Some Phonetic and Tonal Comparisons,” Zambezia, no. 2 (1980): 109–28.
  12. ^ Skhosana, Philemon Buti (2009). "3". The Linguistic Relationship between Southern and Northern Ndebele (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-11-17.
  13. ^ a b c Shenk, J.R. A New Ndebele Grammar
  14. ^ a b c NorthernNdebele at
  15. ^ a b "The timing of agreement and A-movement in Ndebele - lingbuzz/005254". Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  16. ^ Zeller, Jochen (June 2012). "Object marking in isiZulu". Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies. 30 (2): 219–235. doi:10.2989/16073614.2012.737600. ISSN 1607-3614. S2CID 145587448.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bowern, Claire; Lotridge, Victoria, eds. (2002). Ndebele. Munich: LINCOM EUROPA. ISBN 3-89586-465-X.
  • Sibanda, Galen (2004). Verbal Phonology and Morphology of Ndebele (Ph.D.). University of California, Berkeley.
  • Hadebe, Samukele (2002). The Standardisation of the Ndebele Language Through Dictionary-making. University of Zimbabwe - University of Oslo.
  • Skhosana, P.B. (2010). The Linguistic Relationship between Southern and Northern Ndebele. University of Pretoria: DLitt Thesis.

External links[edit]