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About Ndebele (Northern) Language

The Northern Ndebele language, or isiNdebele, or Sindebele, is an African language belonging to the Nguni group of Bantu languages, and spoken by the Ndebele or Matabele people of Zimbabwe. It is commonly known as Sindebele.

Sindebele is related to the Zulu language spoken in South Africa. This is because the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe descend from followers of the Zulu leader Mzilikazi, who left kwaZulu in the early nineteenth century during the Mfecane.

The Northern and Southern Ndebele languages are not variants of the same language; though they both fall in the Nguni group of Bantu languages, Northern Ndebele is essentially a dialect of Zulu, and the older Southern Ndebele language appears to be the first Nguni language to reach the very Southern parts of Africa. The shared name may be due to contact between Mzilikazi's people and the original Ndebele, through whose territory they crossed during the Mfecane. Either way, the shared name is only indicative of the most tenuous links - it is not coincidental, but nor is it deeply significant (cf. Ladin and Ladino).

IsiNdebele is a southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In 1994 isiNdebele became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of isiNdebele speakers to be 711824. At 2% of the population, isiNdebele speakers make up the smallest official language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are situated in the South African provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng, and most notable around the cities of Pretoria and Polokwane. In Zimbabwe, most isiNdebele speakers can be found in the southern Matabeleland region, and notably around the city of Bulawayo. This summary explores the linguistic derivation of the language, the history of written codification and dialectal variation, and recent attempts to standardize the language in South Africa.

IsiNdebele forms part of the “Southern Bantu” group of African languages, which in turn forms part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The Central subgroup is further subdivided into geographical regions, each designated by a letter. The S-Group covers much of southern Africa and includes the two major dialect continua of South Africa: the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana language groups. Languages within these two groups tend to be mutually intelligible and the groups make up 47% and 25% of the South African population respectively. IsiNdebele forms part of the Nguni language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, isiZulu, isiXhosa and siSwati. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence isiNdebele is commonly referred to as “Ndebele.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period. In South Africa isiNdebele is also commonly known as Southern Ndebele, to distinguish it from the Zimbabwean variety or Northern Ndebele (also known as Sindebele). IsiNdebele is also occasionally referred to as isiKhethu.

All isiNdebele speakers trace their roots to Nguni migrations out of the region that is now known as KwaZulu-Natal. The earliest of these settled in the Pretoria area in the 1600's. After the death of their king, Musi, the kingdom was split between his two sons, Manala and Ndzundza. The two main South African traditions, Manala in the Pretoria area and the Ndzundza further east, derive from this split. During the 1820's Mzilikazi broke away from Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom and fled northwards, settling ultimately in the region that is today Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. That is the origin of the Ndebele of Zimbabwe.

IsiNdebele is an agglutinating language, in which suffixes and prefixes are used to alter meaning in sentence construction. Like the other indigenous South African languages, isiNdebele is also a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. Examples of phrases in the language include: lotjhani (hello); Unjani? (How are you?); Ngikhona (I am fine).

As a written medium isiNdebele is one of the youngest indigenous languages in South Africa, as formal codification began in the late twentieth century. The language has a very small literature, most of which dates from 1984. The most significant literary work is the Bible, which was translated in 1986. Ironically, most of this language development took place during the Apartheid years.

During the apartheid period, the ruling National Party’s policy of Grand Apartheid was built on a vision of ethno-linguistically discrete territories for South Africa’s indigenous population. Beginning after 1960, the widely condemned “Bantustan” policies of Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd resulted in the creation of ten self-governing territories in predominantly rural areas of South Africa.

Thus the independent territory of “KwaNdebele” was established in 1984, in the Transvaal (today the Northern Province), to serve as the designated homeland of isiNdebele speakers. Under apartheid separate language boards were also created for each of the nine standardized indigenous languages. These boards effectively appropriated the work of language development that had previously been done by missionaries. In 1976 the South Ndebele Language Board was established. The board sought to formulate spelling rules, compile a vocabulary list for schools, and promote the production of written materials. The board also had an oversight function – preventing the publication of politically challenging material. From 1984 the language was taught for the first time as a subject in primary and secondary schools. A number of schools also began to use it as a teaching medium. The KwaNdebele territorial authority was disbanded in 1990 and now forms part of the Northern Province administration.

Following the democratic transition 1994 responsibility for language policy and development now rests with the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. A new body – the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) – was also created and charged with responsibility for language planning. PanSALB has sought to facilitate the further development of the language. Under PanSALB, the isiNdebele Lexicography Unit is responsible for developing new terminology for the language. The functional development of the language is proving rather difficult. Education poses particular problems. Until recently isiNdebele speakers tended to learn Zulu at school. Although the language is now taught as a subject at both primary and secondary level, it is only used as a medium of instruction from grade 1 to grade 3.

As a very small language, the development of isiNdebele faces particular economic difficulties. The heartlands of the language are situated in predominantly rural regions. High unemployment means that many young Ndebele speakers are compelled to move to towns and cities in order to find work. Here they invariably come into contact with speakers of other languages – including closely related languages such as Zulu, which they understand and often adapt to. IsiNdebele is used on radio and shares a television channel with other Nguni languages. There are no isiNdebele newspapers.


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