EthnicityNguni people
Southern Africa
Linguistic classificationNiger–Congo?
  • Zunda languages
  • Tekela languages

The Nguni languages are a group of closely related Bantu languages indigenous to southern Africa (mainly South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kingdom of eSwatini) by the Nguni people. Nguni languages include Xhosa, Hlubi, Zulu, Ndebele, and Swati. The appellation "Nguni" derives from the Nguni cattle type. Ngoni (see below) is an older, or a shifted, variant.

It is sometimes argued that the use of Nguni as a generic label suggests a historical monolithic unity of the people in question, where in fact the situation may have been more complex.[1] The linguistic use of the label (referring to a subgrouping of Bantu) is relatively stable.

From an English editorial perspective, the articles "a" and "an" are both used with "Nguni", but "a Nguni" is more frequent and more correct especially if "Nguni" is pronounced as it is suggested (/ŋˈɡuːni/)[by whom?].


Proportion of the population that speaks a Nguni language at home in South Africa, not showing the areas in Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique here.
  •   0–20%
  •   20–40%
  •   40–60%
  •   60–80%
  •   80–100%
Density of home-language speakers of Nguni languages in South Africa, not showing the areas in Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique here.
  •   <1 /km²
  •   1–3 /km²
  •   3–10 /km²
  •   10–30 /km²
  •   30–100 /km²
  •   100–300 /km²
  •   300–1000 /km²
  •   1000–3000 /km²
  •   >3000 /km²

Within a subset of Southern Bantu, the label "Nguni" is used both genetically (in the linguistic sense) and typologically (quite apart from any historical significance).

The Nguni languages are closely related, and in many instances different languages are mutually intelligible; in this way, Nguni languages might better be construed as a dialect continuum than as a cluster of separate languages. On more than one occasion, proposals have been put forward to create a unified Nguni language.[2][3]

In scholarly literature on southern African languages, the linguistic classificatory category "Nguni" is traditionally considered to subsume two subgroups: "Zunda Nguni" and "Tekela Nguni".[4][5] This division is based principally on the salient phonological distinction between corresponding coronal consonants: Zunda /z/ and Tekela /t/ (thus the native form of the name Swati and the better-known Zulu form Swazi), but there is a host of additional linguistic variables that enables a relatively straightforward division into these two substreams of Nguni.

Tekela languages

Zunda languages

Note: Maho (2009) also lists S401 Old Mfengu.


The following aspects of Nguni languages are typical:

Comparative data

Compare the following sentences:

Language "I like your new sticks"
Zulu Ngi-ya-zi-thanda izi-nduku z-akho ezin-tsha
Xhosa Ndi-ya-zi-thanda ii-ntonga z-akho ezin-tsha
Northern Ndebele Ngi-ya-zi-thanda i-ntonga z-akho ezin-tsha
Southern Ndebele Ngi-ya-zi-thanda iin-ntonga z-akho ezi-tjha
Bhaca Ndi-ya-ti-thsandza ii-ntfonga t-akho etin-tsha
Hlubi Ng'ya-zi-thanda iin-duku z-akho ezintsha
Swazi Ngi-ya-ti-tsandza ti-ntfonga t-akho letin-sha
Mpapa Phuthi Gi-ya-ti-tshadza ti-tfoga t-akho leti-tjha
Sigxodo Phuthi Gi-ya-ti-tshadza ti-tshoga t-akho leti-tjha

Note: Xhosa ⟨tsh⟩ = Phuthi ⟨tjh⟩ = IPA [tʃʰ]; Phuthi ⟨tsh⟩ = [tsʰ]; Zulu ⟨sh⟩ = IPA [ʃ], but in the environment cited here /ʃ/ is "nasally permuted" to [tʃ]. Phuthi ⟨jh⟩ = breathy voiced [dʒʱ] = Xhosa, Zulu ⟨j⟩ (in the environment here following the nasal [n]). Zulu, Swazi, Hlubi ⟨ng⟩ = [ŋ].

Language "I understand only a little English"
Zulu Ngisi-zwa ka-ncane isi-Ngisi
Xhosa Ndisi-qonda ka-ncinci nje isi-Ngesi
Northern Ndebele Ngisi-zwisisa ka-ncane isiKhiwa [9]
Southern Ndebele Ngisi-zwisisa ka-ncani nje isi-Ngisi
Hlubi Ng'si-visisisa ka-ncani nje isi-Ngisi
Swazi Ngisiva ka-ncane nje si-Ngisi
Mpapa Phuthi Gisi-visisa ka-nci të-jhë Si-kguwa
Sigxodo Phuthi Gisi-visisa ka-ncinci të-jhë Si-kguwa

Note: Phuthi ⟨kg⟩ = IPA [x].

See also


  1. ^ Wright 1987.
  2. ^ Eric P. Louw (1992). "Language and National Unity in a Post-Apartheid South Africa". Critical Arts.
  3. ^ Neville Alexander (1989). "Language Policy and National Unity in South Africa/Azania".
  4. ^ Doke 1954.
  5. ^ Ownby 1985.
  6. ^ Jordan 1942.
  7. ^ "Isizwe SamaHlubi: Submission to the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims: Draft 1" (PDF). July 2004. Retrieved 28 July 2011.
  8. ^ Donnelly 2009, p. 1-61.
  9. ^[permanent dead link]


Further reading