Chewa language

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Chichewa, Chinyanja
Native to Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe
Ethnicity Chewa
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 (/ˈɛwə/), also known as Nyanja (/ˈnjænə/), is a language of the Bantu language family. The noun class prefix chi- is used for languages,[4] so the language is usually called Chichewa and Chinyanja (spelled 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, the language is generally known as Nyanja or Cinyanja/Chinyanja '(language) of the lake' (referring to Lake Malawi).[6]

Chewa belongs to the same language group (Guthrie Zone N) as Tumbuka, Sena,[7] and Nsenga.


Chewa is the most widely known language of Malawi, spoken mostly in the Central and Southern Regions of that country.[8] "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."[9] It was one of the 55 languages featured on the Voyager spacecraft.[10]


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.[11][12]

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.[13] Later he wrote an account including some ethnographic and linguistic notes and vocabularies. According to Gamitto, the Malawi or Maravi 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

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. Further early grammars and vocabularies include A grammar of Chinyanja, a language spoken in British Central Africa, on and near the shores of Lake Nyasa by George Henry (1891) and M.E. Woodward's A vocabulary of English–Chinyanja and Chinyanja–English: as spoken at Likoma, Lake Nyasa (1895). 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.[17] Another Bible translation, known as the Buku Lopatulika ndilo Mau a Mulungu, was made in a more standard Central Region dialect about 1900-1922 by missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Mission and Church of Scotland with the help of some Malawians. This has recently (2016) been reissued in a revised and slightly modernised version.[18]

Another early grammar, concentrating on the Kasungu dialect of the language, 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 young student from Nyasaland studying in Chicago, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who in 1966 was to become the first President of the Republic of Malawi.[19][20] This grammar was also the first to mark the tones of the words.

In recent years the language has changed considerably, and a dichotomy has grown between the traditional Chichewa of the villages and the language of city-dwellers.[21]



Chewa has five vowel sounds: /a, ɛ, i, ɔ, 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.[citation needed] The added 'u' or 'i' in borrowed words such as láputopu 'laptop' or íntaneti 'internet' tends to be silent or barely pronounced.[citation needed]


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

  • ba, kha, ga, fa etc.
  • mphwa, khwa, gwa, fwa etc.
  • thya, mya, fya, nya etc.

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:

  • mba, nkha, mfa, nsa, ngwa etc.

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

  • In most words, Chewa b and d (when not prenasalised) are pronounced implosively, by sucking slightly.[26] However, there is also an explosive b and d, mostly found in foreign words, such as bála 'bar', yôdúla 'expensive' (from Afrikaans duur) (in contrast to the implosive b and d in native words such as bála 'wound' and yôdúla 'which cuts'). An explosive d is also found in kudínda 'to stamp (a document)' and mdidi 'confident step'.
  • The affricate sounds bv and pf were formerly commonly heard but are now generally replaced by b and f, e.g. (b)vúto 'problem', (p)fúpa 'bone'. In the Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja dictionary produced by the University of Malawi, the spellings bv and pf are not used in any of the headwords, but bv is used two or three times in the definitions.
  • The combination bz is described by Atkins as an "alveolar-labialised fricative".[27] The combination sounds something like [bʒ] or [bzʲ]. Similarly ps is pronounced something like [pʃ] or [psʲ].
  • The sounds written ch, k, p and t are pronounced less forcibly than the English equivalents and generally without aspiration. Stevick notes that in relaxed speech, the first three are sometimes replaced with the voiced fricatives [ʒ], [ɣ] and [β], and t can be heard as a voiced flap.[28] In the combination -ti (e.g. angáti? 'how many'), t may be lightly aspirated.
  • h is also used in Chewa but mostly in foreign words such as hotéra 'hotel', hátchi 'horse', mswahála 'monthly allowance given to chiefs'.
  • j is described by Scotton and Orr as being pronounced "somewhat more forward in the mouth" than in English and as sounding "somewhere between an English d and j ".[29]
  • l and r are the same phoneme,[30] representing a retroflex tap [ɽ], something between [l] and [r]. The spelling rules are to write 'r' after 'i' or 'e', except after a prefix, as in lilíme 'tongue'.[31]
  • m is syllabic [] in words where it is derived from mu, e.g. m'balé 'relative' (3 syllables), m'phunzitsi 'teacher' (4 syllables), anáḿpatsa 'he gave him' (5 syllables). However, in class 9 words, such as mphátso 'gift', mbale 'plate', or mfíti 'witch', and also in the class 1 word mphaká 'cat', the m is pronounced very short and does not form a separate syllable. In Southern Region dialects of Malawi, the syllabic m in words like mkángo 'lion' is pronounced homorganically, i.e. [ŋ̍.ká.ᵑɡo] (with three syllables), but in the Central Region, it is pronounced as it is written, i.e. [m̩.ká.ᵑɡo].[32]
  • n, in combinations such as nj, ntch, nkh etc., is assimilated to the following consonant, that is, it is pronounced [ɲ] or [ŋ] as appropriate. ny is pronounced [ɲ],[33] In words of class 9, such as njóka 'snake' or nduná 'minister' it is pronounced very short, as part of the following syllable. It can also be syllabic, when it is contracted from ndi 'it is' or ndí 'and', e.g. ń'kúpíta 'and to go'; also in the remote past continuous tense, e.g. ankápítá 'he used to go'. In some borrowed words such as bánki or íntaneti the combinations nk and nt with non-syllabic n can be found but not in native words.
  • ng is pronounced [ŋg] as in 'finger' and ng’ is pronounced [ŋ] as in 'singer'. Both of these consonants can occur at the beginning of a word: ngoma 'kudu', ng'ombe 'cow or ox'.
  • w in the combinations awu, ewu, iwu, owa, uwa (e.g. mawú 'voice', msewu 'road', liwú 'sound', lowa 'enter', duwa 'flower') although often written is generally not pronounced.[34]
  • ŵ, a "closely lip-rounded [w] with the tongue in the close-i position",[35] was formerly used in Central Region dialects but is now rarely heard, usually being replaced by 'w'. ("It is doubtful whether the majority of speakers have /β/ in their phoneme inventory" (Kishindo).)[36] The symbol 'ŵ' is no longer used in books and newspapers. In the dialects that use the sound, it is found only before a, i, and e, while before o and u it becomes [w].[37]
  • zy (as in zyoliká 'be upside down like a bat') can be pronounced [ʒ].[38]


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]

  • munthu [mu.ⁿtʰu] 'person' (Low, Low)
  • galú [ɡa.ɽú] 'dog' (Low, High)
  • mbúzi [ᵐbú.zi] 'goat' (High, Low)
  • chímanga [t͡ʃí.ma.ᵑɡa] 'maize' (High, Low, Low)

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:

  • chákúdyá [t͡ʃá.kú.ɗʲá] 'food' (High, High, High; derived from chá + kudyá, 'a thing of eating')

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:

  • ndí-ma-thandíza 'I (usually) help'
  • ndí-ma-píta 'I (usually) go'

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

  • ndi-ma-thándiza 'I was helping'
  • ndi-ma-píta 'I was going'

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

  • sabatá yatha 'the week has ended'
  • sabatá yátha 'the week which has ended (i.e. last week)'

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 not 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]

  • Mu-A- (1/2): munthu pl. anthu 'person'; mphunzitsi pl. aphunzitsi 'teacher'; mwaná pl. aná 'child'
      (1a/2): galú pl. agalú 'dog'. Class 1a refers to nouns which have no m- prefix.
      The plural a- is used only for humans and animals. It can also be used for respect, e.g. aphunzitsi áthu 'our teacher'
      (1a/6): kíyi pl. makíyi 'key'; gúle pl. magúle 'dance'
      (1a): tomáto 'tomato(es)'; katúndu 'luggage, furniture'; feteréza 'fertilizer' (no pl.)
  • Mu-Mi- (3/4): mudzi pl. midzi 'village'; mténgo pl. miténgo 'tree'; moyo pl. miyoyo 'life'
      (3): mowa 'beer'; móto 'fire'; bowa 'mushroom(s)' (no pl.)
  • Li-Ma- (5/6): dzína pl. maína 'name'; vúto pl. mavúto 'problem'; khásu pl. makásu 'hoe'; díso pl. masó 'eye'
      Often the first consonant is softened or omitted in the plural in this class.
      (6): madzí 'water', mankhwála 'medicine', maló 'place' (no sg.)
  • Chi-Zi- (7/8): chinthu pl. zinthu 'thing'; chaká pl. zaká 'year'
      (7): chímanga 'maize'; chikóndi 'love' (no pl.)
  • I-Zi- (9/10): nyumbá pl. nyumbá 'house'; mbúzi pl. mbúzi 'goat'
      (10): ndevu 'beard'; ndíwo 'relish'; nzerú 'intelligence' (no sg.)
      (9/6): bánki pl. mabánki 'bank'
  • Ka-Ti- (12/13): kamwaná pl. tianá 'baby'; kanthu pl. tinthu 'small thing'
      (12): kasamalidwe 'method of taking care'; kavinidwe 'way of dancing' (no pl.)
      (13): tuló 'sleep' (no sg.)
  • U-Ma- (14): usíku 'night time'; ulimi 'farming'; udzudzú 'mosquito(es)' (no pl.)
      (14/6): utá pl. mautá 'bow'

Infinitive class:

  • Ku- (15): kuóna 'to see, seeing'

Locative classes:

  • Pa- (16): pakamwa 'mouth'
  • Ku- (17): kukhosi 'neck'
  • Mu- (18): mkamwa 'inside the mouth'


Pronouns, adjectives, and verbs have to show agreement with nouns in Chichewa. This is done by means of prefixes, for example:

  • Uyu ndi mwaná wángá 'this is my child' (class 1)
  • Awa ndi aná ángá 'these are my children' (class 2)
  • Ichi ndi chímanga chánga 'this is my maize' (class 7)
  • Iyi ndi nyumbá yángá 'this is my house' (class 9)

Class 2 (the plural of class 1) is often used for respect when referring to elders. According to Corbett and Mtenje, a word like bambo 'father', even though it is singular, will take plural concords (e.g. bambo anga akuyenda, ndikuwaona 'my father is walking, I see him'); they note that to use the singular object-marker -mu- would be 'grossly impolite'.[50]

The various prefixes are shown on the table below:

Table of Chewa concords
noun English this that all subj object num rem of of+vb other adj
1 mwaná child uyu uyo yé- a- mu/m- m/(mu)- uja wó- wína wám-
2 aná children awa awo ó- a- -a/wa- a- aja á ó- éna áa-
3 mutú head uwu uwo wó- u- -u- u- uja wó- wína wau-
4 mitú heads iyi iyo yó- i- -i/yi- i- ija yó- ína yái-
5 díso eye ili ilo ló- li- -li- li- lija ló- lína láli-
6 masó eyes awa awo ó- a- -wa- a- aja á ó- éna áa-
7 chaká year ichi icho chó- chi- -chi- chi- chija chá chó- chína cháchi-
8 zaká years izi izo zó- zi- -zi- zi- zija zó- zína zázi-
9 nyumbá house iyi iyo yó- i- -i/yi- i- ija yó- ína yái-
10 nyumbá houses izi izo zó- zi- -zi- zi- zija zó- zína zázi-
12 kamwaná baby aka ako kó- ka- -ka- ka- kaja kó- kéna káka-
13 tianá babies iti ito tó- ti- -ti- ti- tija tó- tína táti-
14 utá bow uwu uwo wó- u- -u- u- uja wó- wína wáu-
15 kugúla buying uku uko kó- ku- -ku- ku- kuja kwá kó- kwína kwáku-
16 pansí underneath apa apo pó- pa- -pa- pa- paja pó- péna pápa-
17 kutsogoló in front uku uko kó- ku- -ku- ku- kuja kwá kó- kwína kwáku-
18 mkatí inside umu umo mó- m/mu- -mu- m/mu- muja mwá mó- mwína mwám'-

Although there are 17 different noun classes, because some of them share concords there are in fact only 12 sets of prefixes.

In the examples below, the concords are illustrated with nouns of classes 1 and 2.


  • uyu ndaní? 'who is this?'; awa ndaní? 'who are these?' (or: 'who is this gentleman?' (respectful))
  • mwaná uyu 'this child'; aná awa 'these children'
  • mwaná uyo 'that child'; aná awo 'those children'

These are often shortened to mwanáyu, mwanáyo, anáwa, anáwo.

Concords with ye, (w)o

  • iyé 'he/she'; iwó 'they' (or 'he/she' (respectful))
  • ndiyé 'it is he/she'; ndiwó 'it is they'
  • Maláwi yénse 'the whole of Malawi'; aná ónse 'all the children'
  • yékha 'on his/her own'; ókha 'on their own'
  • mwaná yemwéyo 'that same child'; aná omwéwo 'those same children'
  • mwaná áliyensé 'every child'; aná awíri álionsé 'every two children'

In class 2 and 6, o- often becomes wo- (e.g. wónse for ónse etc.).

Subject prefix

  • mwaná ápita 'the child will go'; aná ápita 'the children will go'

The perfect tense (wapita 'he has gone') has different prefixes from the other tenses.

The relative pronoun améne and demonstrative améneyo use the same prefixes as a verb:

  • mwaná améne 'the child who'; aná améne 'the children who'
  • mwaná améneyo 'that child'; aná aménewo 'those children'
  • nyumbá iméneyo 'that house'; nyumbá ziménezo 'those houses'

Object infix (m(u), (w)a)

  • ndamúona 'I have seen him'; ndawáona 'I have seen them' (sometimes shortened to ndaáona)

Numerals (m(u), a)

Numeral prefixes are used with numbers one to five, and the words angáti? 'how many', angápo 'several':

  • mwaná mmódzi 'one child'; aná awíri 'two children'

Concords with u, a

  • mwaná uja 'that child (the one you know)'; aná aja 'those children'
  • mwezí uno 'this month (we are in)'; masíkú ano 'these days'
  • mwaná wapita 'the child has gone; aná apita 'the children have gone'
  • mwaná wá Mphátso 'Mphatso's child'; aná á Mphátso 'Mphatso's children'
  • mwaná wángá 'my child'; aná ángá 'my children'
  • mwaná wókóngola 'a beautiful child'; aná ókóngola 'beautiful children'
  • mwaná wína 'a certain child, another child'; aná éna 'certain children, other children'
  • mwaná weníwéní 'a real child'; aná eníéní 'real children'


Certain adjectives (-kúlu 'big', -ng'óno 'small'; -(a)múna 'male', -kázi 'female'; -táli 'long', -fúpi 'short'; -wisi 'fresh') combine the possessive concord () and the number concord (m):

  • mwaná wáḿkúlu 'a big child'; aná áákúlu 'big children'
  • mwaná wáḿng'óno 'a small child'; aná ááng'óno 'little children'
  • mwaná wámwámúna 'a male child'; aná áámúna 'male children'
  • mwaná wáḿkázi 'a male child'; aná áákázi 'male children'

Historic changes

Early dictionaries, such as those of Rebmann, and of Scott and Hetherwick, show that formerly the number of concords was greater. The following changes have taken place:

  • Class 2 formerly had the concord ŵa- (e.g. ŵanthu aŵa 'these people'), but this has now become a- for most speakers.
  • Class 8, formerly using dzi- (Southern Region) or bzi/bvi/vi- (Central Region) (e.g. bzaká bziŵíri 'two years'),[51] has now adopted the concords of class 10.
  • Class 6, formerly with ya- concords (e.g. mazira aya 'these eggs'),[52] now has the concords of class 2.
  • Class 11 (lu-) had already been assimilated to class 5 even in the 19th century, although it still exists in some dialects of the neighbouring language Tumbuka.
  • Class 14, formerly with bu- concords (e.g. ufá bwángá 'my flour'),[53] now has the same concords as class 3.
  • Class 13 (ti-) had tu- in Rebmann's time (e.g. tumpeni utu 'these small knives'). This prefix still survives in words like tuló 'sleep'.

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.


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:[54][55]

  • ndi-ku-gúla 'I am buying'
  • ndí-ma-gúla 'I usually buy'
  • ndi-ma-gúla 'I was buying', 'I used to buy'
  • ndí-dzá-gula 'I will buy (tomorrow or in future)'
  • ndí--gula 'I will buy (when I get there)'

One tense has no tense-marker:

  • ndí-gula 'I will buy (soon)'

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:

  • ndi-ku-má-gúlá 'I am always buying'[56]
  • ndi-ná-ká-gula 'I went and bought'[57]
  • ndí-má-ngo-gúla 'I just usually buy'[58]

Compound tenses, such as the following, are also found in Chichewa:[59]

  • nd-a-khala ndí-kú-gúla 'I have been buying'


Chichewa verbs (with the exception of the imperative mood and infinitive) begin with a prefix agreeing grammatically with the subject.[60] This prefix is referred to by some grammarians as the 'subject-marker'.[61]

  • (ife) ti-ku-píta 'we are going'
  • mténgo w-a-gwa (for *u-a-gwa) 'the tree has fallen'[62]

The subject-marker can be:

  • Personal: ndi- 'I', u- 'you (singular)', a- 'he, she, they', ti- 'we', mu- 'you (plural or polite)'. (In the perfect tense, the subject-marker for 'he, she' is w-: w-a-pita 'he has gone'.)[63]
  • Impersonal: a- (class 1, 2 or 6), u- (class 3 or 14), i- (class 4 or 9), li- (class 5), etc.
  • Locative: ku-, pa-, mu-

An example of a locative subject-marker might be:

  • m'madzí muli nsómba 'in the water there are fish'[64]


An object-marker can also optionally be added to the verb; if one is added it goes immediately before the verb-stem:[65]

  • ndí-ma-ku-kónda 'I love you' (ndi = 'I', ku = 'you')

The object-marker can be:

  • Personal: -ndi- 'me', -ku- 'you', -mu- or -m'- 'him, her', -ti- 'us', -wa- 'them', 'him/her (polite)'. For 'you (plural or polite)',as well as -ku- -ni is added to the end of the verb, e.g. ndí-ma-ku-kónda-ni 'I love you (plural or polite)'.
  • Impersonal: -mu- (class 1), -wa- (class 2), -u- (class 3 or 14), etc.
  • Locative: e.g. m'nyumba mu-ku--dzíwa 'you know the inside of the house';[66] but usually a locative suffix is used instead: nd-a-oná-mo 'I have seen inside it'
  • Reflexive: -dzi- 'himself', 'herself', 'themselves', 'myself', etc.

Variety of tenses

Chewa has a large number of tenses, some of which differ in some respects from the tenses met with in European languages. For example, for referring to events which took place earlier today, either of the following two tenses may be used:

  • nd-a-gula 'I have bought' (Perfect)
  • ndi-na-gúla 'I bought' or 'I had bought' (Recent Past)

The difference between them is that the first one implies that the result of the event is still relevant (namely that the speaker still have the thing which I he or she bought), whereas the second one is used either when the result of the action isn't relevant (for example, if the speaker is narrating a series of events),[67] or when there is a definite implication that the result no longer holds (namely in this case that although the speaker bought the thing, he or she no longer has it). Thus wapita means 'he has gone (and not yet returned)' while anapíta means 'he went (but has now returned)'.

A similar pair of tenses are used when referring to events of yesterday or earlier:

  • ndi-ná-gula (or ndi-dá-gula) 'I bought' or 'I have bought' (Remote Perfect)
  • ndí-ná-a-gúla (or ndí-dá-a-gúla) 'I bought' or 'I had bought' (Remote Past)

The first of these would usually imply that the speaker still has the thing that was bought, while the second implies that he or she no longer has it. Thus the second verb of each pair, unlike the English simple past, which is neutral in implication, generally implies that the effect of the action is no longer evident.[68][69] In other words, they belong to the type of tense known as discontinuous past.[70] The two pairs are not quite parallel, since for narrating a series of events of earlier today, the Recent Past would be used, but for events of yesterday or earlier, the Remote Perfect.

In addition to the distinctions described above, Chichewa also distinguishes perfective from imperfective aspect in every tense; thus for example, ndi-na-gúla 'I bought' (event) is distinct from ndi-ma-gúla 'I was buying' (ongoing situation). In the present tense only, the imperfective is further subdivided into progressive and habitual aspects:

  • ndi-ku-khála ku Lilongwe 'I am living (temporarily) in Lilongwe'
  • ndí-ma-khála ku Lilongwe 'I live (permanently) in Lilongwe'

There are several future tenses. One future tense not found in European languages is the -ká- future, which 'might presuppose an unspoken conditional clause':[71]

  • ndí-ká-gula 'I will buy' (if I go there, or when I get there)

The following tenses refer to potentiality as well as time:

  • ndi-nga-gule 'I can buy'
  • ndi-kadá-gula 'I would have bought'

There are also two subjunctive mood tenses, as follows:

  • ndi-gulé 'I should buy'
  • ndi--gúlá 'I should be buying'

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.[72] The negative of the -ná- tense has the ending -e instead of -a:

  • sí-ndí-gula 'I don't buy'
  • si-ndi-dza-gúla 'I won't buy'
  • sí-ndi-na-gúle 'I didn't buy'

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:

  • ndi-sa-gúle 'I should not buy'[73]
  • ó-sa-gúla! 'do not buy'

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.[74][75] Compare for example:

  • a-ku-gúla 'he is buying'
  • á-kú-gúla 'when he is buying' or 'who is buying'

Other commonly used dependent tenses are the following (the last of these is toneless):[76][77]

  • ndí-tá-gúla 'after I bought'
  • ndí-sa-na-gúle 'before I buy'
  • ndi-ka-gula 'when / if I buy'


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

  • gul-a 'buy'
  • gul-ir-a 'buy for' or 'buy with'
  • gul-ir-an-a 'buy for one another'
  • gul-ik 'get bought', 'be for sale'
  • gul-its-a 'cause to get bought, i.e. sell'
  • gul-its-idw-a 'be sold (by someone)'

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'.[78]

Most extensions, apart from the reciprocal -ana 'one another', have two possible forms, e.g. -ira/-era, -itsa/-etsa, -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.[79]

  • dy-er-a 'eat with',
  • ton-ol-a 'remove grains of corn from the cob'
  • bwe-re-ra 'come back'
  • chep-ets-a 'reduce'

The forms with i and u are used with the verb stem has a, i, or u:

  • gul-its-a 'sell'
  • sungun-ul-a 'melt (something)'
  • kan-ik-á 'fail to happen'


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.[84]

The concords in Town Nyanja differ from those in Chichewa described above. For example, classes 5 and 6 both have the concord ya- instead of la- and a-; class 8 has va- instead of za-; and 13 has twa- instead of ta-.[85] In addition, the subject and object marker for "I" is ni- rather than ndi-, and that for "they" is βa- (spelled "ba-") rather than a-.[86]

Sample phrases

English Chewa (Malawi)[87] Town Nyanja (Lusaka)[88]
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 ndani?[89] 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 mawa 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, eds. (2017). "Nyanja". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ a b Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ cf. Kiswahili for the Swahili language.
  5. ^ Kishindo (2001), p.265.
  6. ^ For spelling Chinyanja cf. Lehmann (1977). Both spellings are used in Zambia Daily Mail articles.
  7. ^ Kiso (2012), pp.21ff.
  8. ^ Mchombo (2006).
  9. ^ Malawian Writers and Their Country, edited by Bridgette Kasuka, published on, page 143
  10. ^ "Voyager Greetings"
  11. ^ Marwick (1963)
  12. ^ Newitt (1982).
  13. ^ Marwick (1964).
  14. ^ Marwick (1963), p.383.
  15. ^ Rebman (1877), preface.
  16. ^ Rebmann (1877) s.v. M'ombo.
  17. ^ 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."
  18. ^ Bible Society of Malawi newsletter, 24 February 2016.
  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. ^ Corbett & Mtenje (1987), p. 10.
  51. ^ Scott & Hetherwick (1929), s.v. Ibsi; Rebmann (1877) s.v. Chiko, Psiwili/Pfiwili; Watkins (1937), p. 37.
  52. ^ Rebmann (1877) s.v. Aya, Mame, Mano, Yonse; cf Goodson (2011).
  53. ^ Rebmann (1877), s.v. Ufa; Watkins (1937), pp. 33-4.
  54. ^ Maxson (2011), pp.39ff, 77ff.
  55. ^ For tones, Mtenje (1986).
  56. ^ Maxson (2011), p.126.
  57. ^ Maxson (2011), p.115.
  58. ^ Salaun, p.49.
  59. ^ Kiso (2012), p.107.
  60. ^ Maxson (2011), pp.19ff.
  61. ^ Hyman & Mtenje (1999a).
  62. ^ Maxson (2011), p.52.
  63. ^ Maxson (2011), p.36.
  64. ^ Salaun, p.16.
  65. ^ Maxson (2011), pp.26ff.
  66. ^ Maxson (2011), p.64.
  67. ^ Kiso (2012), pp.110-111.
  68. ^ Watkins (1937), pp.55-6.
  69. ^ Maxson (2011), p.77.
  70. ^ Kiso (2012), p.118.
  71. ^ Maxson (2011), p.116.
  72. ^ Mtenje (1986), p.244ff.
  73. ^ Stevick et al. (1965), p.222.
  74. ^ Mchombo (2004), pp.17-18.
  75. ^ Stevick et al. (1965), p.147.
  76. ^ Salaun, p.70
  77. ^ Kanerva (1990), p.24.
  78. ^ Hyman & Mtenje (1999b).
  79. ^ Salaun, p.78.
  80. ^ "Chafulumira, William". Dictionary of African Christian Biography.
  81. ^ WorldCat list of Ntara's publications
  82. ^ "Whither Vernacular Fiction?". The Nation newspaper May 26, 2017.
  83. ^ "Jolly Maxwell Ntaba". The Nation newspaper April 4, 2014
  84. ^ Williams, E (1998). Investigating bilingual literacy: Evidence from Malawi and Zambia (Education Research Paper No. 24). Department for International Development.
  85. ^ Gray, Lubasi, & Bwalya (2013), p. 11
  86. ^ Gray, Lubasi & Bwalya (2013) p. 16.
  87. ^ Paas (2016).
  88. ^ Phrases from Gray et al. (2013).
  89. ^ Maxson (2011), p. 112.


  • Atkins, Guy (1950) "Suggestions for an Amended Spelling and Word Division of Nyanja" Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 20, No. 3
  • Batteen, C. (2005). "Syntactic Constraints in Chichewa/English code-switching."
  • Corbett, G.G.; Al D. Mtenje (1987) "Gender Agreement in Chichewa". Studies in African Linguistics Vol 18, No. 1.
  • Downing, Laura J.; Al D. Mtenje (2017). The Phonology of Chichewa. Oxford University Press.
  • Goodson, Andrew, (2011). Salimini's Chichewa In Paas, Steven (2011). Johannes Rebmann: A Servant of God in Africa before the Rise of Western Colonialism, pp. 239–50.
  • Gray, Andrew; Lubasi, Brighton; Bwalya, Phallen (2013). Town Nyanja: a learner's guide to Zambia's emerging national language.
  • Hetherwick, Alexander (1907). A Practical Manual of the Nyanja Language ... Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  • Henry, George, (1904). A grammar of Chinyanja, a language spoken in British Central Africa, on and near the shores of Lake Nyasa.
  • Hullquist, C.G. (1988). Simply Chichewa.
  • Hyman, Larry M. & Sam Mchombo (1992). "Morphotactic Constraints in the Chichewa Verb Stem". Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: General Session and Parasession on The Place of Morphology in a Grammar (1992), pp. 350-364.
  • Hyman, Larry M. & Al D. Mtenje (1999a). "Prosodic Morphology and tone: the case of Chichewa" in René Kager, Harry van der Hulst and Wim Zonneveld (eds.) The Prosody-Morphology Interface. Cambridge University Press, 90-133.
  • Hyman, Larry M. & Al D. Mtenje (1999b). "Non-Etymological High Tones in the Chichewa Verb", Malilime: The Malawian Journal of Linguistics no.1.
  • Katsonga-Woodward, Heather (2012). Chichewa 101. ISBN 978-1480112056.
  • Kanerva, Jonni M. (1990). Focus and Phrasing in Chichewa Phonology. New York, Garland.
  • Kishindo, Pascal, (2001). "Authority in Language": The Role of the Chichewa Board (1972-1995) in Prescription and Standardization of Chichewa. Journal of Asian and African Studies, No. 62.
  • Kiso, Andrea (2012). "Tense and Aspect in Chichewa, Citumbuka, and Cisena". Ph.D. Thesis. Stockholm University.
  • Kunkeyani, Thokozani (2007). "Semantic Classification and Chichewa Derived Nouns". SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics Vol.15 (2007): 151-157.
  • Laws, Robert (1894). An English–Nyanja dictionary of the Nyanja language spoken in British Central Africa. J. Thin. pp. 1–. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  • Lehmann, Dorothea (1977) An outline of Cinyanja Grammar. Zambia ISBN 9789982240154
  • Mapanje, John Alfred Clement (1983). "On the Interpretation of Aspect and Tense in Chiyao, Chichewa, and English". University College London PhD Thesis.
  • Marwick, M.G., (1963). "History and Tradition in East Central Africa Through the Eyes of the Northern Rhodesian Cheŵa", Journal of African History, 4, 3, pp. 375–390.
  • Marwick, M.G., (1964). "An Ethnographic Classic Brought to Light" Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 46–56.
  • Maxson, Nathaniel (2011). Chicheŵa for English Speakers: A New and Simplifed Approach. ISBN 978-99908-979-0-6.
  • Mchombo, Sam, (2004). The Syntax of Chichewa. Cambridge Syntax Guides
  • Mchombo, S. (2006). "Nyanja". In The Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World (Elsevier).
  • Missionários da Companhia de Jesus, (1963). Dicionário Cinyanja–Português. Junta de Investigaçôes do Ultramar.
  • Mtanthauziramawu wa Chinyanja/Chichewa: The first Chinyanja/Chichewa monolingual dictionary (c.2000). Blantyre (Malawi): Dzuka Pub. Co. (Also published online at the website of the "Centre for Language Studies of the University of Malawi".)
  • Mtenje, Al D. (1986). Issues in the Non-Linear Phonology of Chichewa part 1. Issues in the Non-Linear Phonology of Chichewa part 2. PhD Thesis, University College, London.
  • Mtenje, Al D. (1987). "Tone Shift Principles in the Chichewa Verb: A Case for a Tone Lexicon", Lingua 72, 169-207.
  • Newitt, M.D.D. (1982) "The Early History of the Maravi". The Journal of African History, vol 23, no. 2, pp. 145–162.
  • Paas, Steven, (2016). Oxford Chichewa–English, English–Chichewa Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
  • Rebman, John (= Johannes Rebmann), (1877). A Dictionary of the Kiniassa Language. Church Missionary Society (reprinted Gregg, 1968).
  • Riddel, Alexander (1880). A Grammar of the Chinyanja Language as Spoken at Lake Nyassa: With Chinyanja–English and English–Chinyanja Vocabularies. J. Maclaren & Son. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  • Salaun, N. (1993) [1978]. Chicheŵa Intensive Course. Likuni Press, Lilongwe.
  • Scott, David Clement & Alexander Hetherwick (1929). Dictionary of the Nyanja Language.
  • Scotton, Carol Myers & Gregory John Orr, (1980). Learning Chichewa, Bk 1. Learning Chichewa, Bk 2. Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. Peace Corps, Washington, D.C. (For recordings, see External links below.)
  • Simango, Silvester Ron (2000). "'My Madam is Fine': The Adaptation of English loanwords in Chichewa". Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, vol 12, no. 6.
  • Stevick, Earl et al. (1965). Chinyanja Basic Course. Foreign Service Institute, Washington, D.C. (Recordings of this are available on the internet.)
  • Wade-Lewis, Margaret (2005). "Mark Hanna Watkins". Histories of Anthropology Annual, vol 1, pp. 181–218.
  • Watkins, Mark Hanna (1937). A Grammar of Chichewa: A Bantu Language of British Central Africa, Language, Vol. 13, No. 2, Language Dissertation No. 24 (Apr.-Jun., 1937), pp. 5–158.
  • Woodward, M.E., (1895). A vocabulary of English–Chinyanja and Chinyanja–English as spoken at Likoma, Lake Nyasa. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

External links

  • Online English–Chichewa Dictionary
  • My First Chewa Dictionary kasahorow
  • Chichewa at Omniglot
  • English / Chichewa (Nyanja) Online Dictionary
  • Buku Lopatulika Bible, 1922 version digitalized
  • Complete Bible (Buku Lopatulika, 1922, revised 1936) in Nyanja, chapter by chapter
  • Buku Lopatulika Bible, 2014 version
  • Johnson's 1912 translation of Genesis 1-3 into the Likoma dialect, in various formats
  • Johnson's translation of the Book of Common Prayer in the Likoma dialect (1909).
  • Holy Quran in Chichewa
  • Recordings of pages of Scotton & Orr's Learning Chichewa
  • Willie T. Zingani, Idzani muone "Come and see" Chichewa book in pdf form.
  • OLAC resources in and about the Nyanja language
  • Zodiak Radio live radio in English and Chichewa
  • M.V.B. Mangoche A Visitor's Notebook of Chichewa Elementary phrasebook.
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