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Chichewa Language Primer 

on-line version of C.G.Hullquist's Simply Chichewa 159 page book published 1988 by Malamulo Publishing House, Makwasa, Malawi.


Africa is unquestionably the world's most polyglot continent. It has been estimated that the number of separate and distinct African languages may be as high as 1,000. Chichewa is one of the 30 or so which enjoy the status of lingua franca. Although there is considerable regional variation, it is spoken or understood by well over 10 million natives speakers in the principal east-african countries of Malawi and Zambia where it is also known as Chinyanja, language of the lake.

Chichewa belongs to the Bantu language family. Bantu comes from the word meaning "people" in most members of the family (anthu or wanthu in Chichewa). There are a number of common features shared among these closely related sub-Saharan languages which are rare in the rest of the world. For example, the frequent use of a nasal sound combined with another consonant (eg, mb-, ml- nd- and nk-) as the initial sound for many words. Then there are the implosive consonants like b and d where air is sucked into the mouth during speech.

But it is the grammatical features that make Chichewa such a remarkable language. The grammar is simple, consistent, predictable and logical. Spelling is basically phonetic. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs often share common stems or root forms to produce a versatile and compact vocabulary. Words are constructed from many smaller elements, each with its own distinct and separate meaning. Because of this, a single word might be equivalent to a whole sentence in English or other European language. For example:


This single word, when broken down into Si-ti-na-mu-piti-tse-nso means "We didn't make him go again."

Other notable features are the lack of any irregular verbs and sex gender. But the most interesting characteristic of the Bantu group is its system of noun classes. These produce what is called "alliterative concord" because they create the repetition of a common sound for successive words in a sentence:

Kamwana kakang'ono kwathu kakugona kokha.

Such agreement with virtually all parts of speech produces an aesthetically pleasing system of obvious relationships. Now choose one of the green topics at the left to further explore this fascinating language.