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Influence of other languages on Ndebele


The expression: “No man is an island unto himself”, is equally true of language. All languages develop alongside other neighbouring languages and more quickly as a result of colonisation.

As speakers of a language interact with their neighbours socially and economically they learn each other’s vocabulary and other expressions and unconsciously absorb each other’s words which may in time be incorporated into each other’s languages. Many languages have developed that way.

English is a good example as it incorporated words from Latin and other European languages. In modern times this matter has been accelerated by increased commercial activities among the nations.

Colonisation works somewhat differently from what has been described. Colonisers are conquerors and so they impose their culture including language upon the conquered people.

The colonised people have no choice; they learn to wear new clothes, to eat new food, to obey new laws and above all to understand and to speak the language of their new masters.

It is interesting to note that usually the language of colonisation lingers on even long after the colonisation is over and that the language of the former colonisers may became the official language of the former colonies.

That is the case in Mozambique where Portuguese is spoken; in the former British colonies (eg Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and others) where English is the official language; in West Africa (Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Morocco and others) who continue to speak French long after they got their freedom from the French.

In the case of Ndebele the influence of English is far stronger than the other surrounding languages, especially Shona whose influence on Ndebele is relatively insignificant.

You can actually count the Shona words and expressions that have crept into the Ndebele language. It is even doubtful whether some of them have been assimilated to the point of being accepted. Here are some examples of Shona words that are used in Ndebele:

  •   Imali le kayikwananga eyinye isilahlekile,
  • Ngitsho ngoba wena uyishamari yami,
  • USitheni usetshaya amapoto koNdlovu,
  • LoZondwase laye usesuke watiza umkumbo wayazendisa koMkhwananzi,
  • Izulu linile lamuhla kunyakaza izikokonono ezinengi.

There are a few more other examples that are localised and may not be understood in some parts of Ndebeleland that are far from Shona influences. But still, Shona has not made meaningful inroads into the Ndebele language.

It is also interesting that other Nguni dialects do influence Ndebele which to all intents and purposes is a distinct Nguni dialect by itself. The major Nguni dialects of Zulu and Xhosa do influence Ndebele.

It is not uncommon nowadays to hear someone say: Wafela ekudeni umzimba wakhe bawuletha ekhaya ngendizamtshina. Ndebele does not call a dead body umzimba; yisidumbu. Baletha isidumbu and not umzimba. The word umzimba refers to a living body.

It is also noticeable that when words are borrowed from another language the receiving language tends to alter their real meaning somewhat. The Shona word shamwari merely means a close friend. But when used as shamari in Ndebele it implies an unwholesome love affair between a man and woman: USakhile yishamari kaJosefa.

Afrikaans has had a very strong and significant influence on Ndebele particularly articles of clothing: Ibhatshi, ibhulugwe, iyembe, inolobagi and so on; household articles: Isipenede, isikopela, isidikiselo, ifatshi, ifasteli, isitina and so on; then the names of oxen for pulling the york: UBlomu, uBlensi, uGwayimani, uLengisi, uKhaflanti, uKresimani, uJamludi, uSkopu, uJambleni, uDankeni, uBhantomu, uSkeyimani, uDambleni, uLesimani, uLentusi and many others. The fact is that the Ndebele learnt to use oxen as beasts of labour under the influence of the Afrikaans rather than the aristocratic British who avoided that kind of labour.

English has by far had the greatest influence on Ndebele and continues to do so even more strongly after the end of colonization and when virtually the English people have left Zimbabwe. For some young people English has become their first language of communication and for everybody it is the language of education and of commerce.

Younger Christian churches conduct their worship services in English. One wonders how many Ndebele people dream in English or exclaim in English when they are suddenly seized by emotion or stress!

Read the following to feel the influence of English:

  •   Ugqoka isayizi bani yezicathulo?
  • Ithirabuli yikuthi bathanda iprocessed foods kulalezo ezinatural,
  • Inspare wheel semota yami simpontshile,
  • Sengidisayide ukuthi ngisuke lapha early tomorrow morning,
  • Uwile ? Shame, sori ungakhali mntanami,
  • Imobilisation of rural people yiyo ikhiye yokuwina this election,
  • iFolosi ifemasi by far okudlula iNiagara Falls.
  • Nanti isela. Swa-a-a, Sport khetshemu!
  • Zwanini kuhle bandla, IHoly Spirit yafika ingumoya omkhulu, isiphepho, isivunguzane sangena emakhaleni abafundi badakwa, ye intoxicated blayindi bahle baqalisa ukuwumana ngezindimi zabanye abantu.

Yikho lathi kumele sikhulume in tongues, izindimi sithi: “Yes, Jesus Christ of Goligotha. Brahmaputra is a river on top of Himalaya in the Garden of Eden. Bless me please. Kho,kho,kho, khokhakhola open top tswi-i-i, splash me on face and leave me dry. Haleluya!”

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