Tonga (Nyasa) language

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Western Nyasa
Native toMalawi
Native speakers
170,000 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2tog
ISO 639-3tog

Tonga is a Bantu language spoken by 170,000 people mainly in the Nkhata Bay District of Malawi, on the shores of Lake Malawi facing the islands of Likoma and Chizumulu.[4]

The language is called chiTonga by its own speakers; the 'chi-' is a prefix used to form language names, the equivalent of 'ki' in kiSwahili or 'se' in seTswana.

The Tonga language of Malawi is described as "similar" to Tumbuka, and Turner's dictionary[5] lists only those words which differ from the Tumbuka, with the added comment that "the Tonga folk, being rapid speakers, slur or elide the final syllable of many words, e.g. kulira becomes kuliya, kukura becomes kukuwa, kutoa becomes kuto’." Tonga (Nyasa), i.e. Malawian Tonga, is grouped in the Glottolog classification along with Tumbuka in a single group, it is classified by Guthrie as being in Zone N15, whereas the Zambian Tonga is classified as Zone M64 and can thus be considered a different language.

An example of Tonga[edit]

An example of a folktale translated into Tonga, Tumbuka and other languages of Northern Malawi is given in the Language Mapping Survey for Northern Malawi carried out by the Centre for Language Studies of the University of Malawi;[6] the Chitonga version goes as follows:


Fuwu wanguruta kwachipempha vakurgha ku ŵanthu. Pakupinga thumba laki, wanguchita kumanga kuchingwi chitali ndi kuvwara mu singo laki. Ndipu pakwenda, thumba lazanga kuvuli kwaki.

Penipo wanguwa pa nthowa, Kalulu wanguza kuvuli kwaki ndipu wanguti “Ndato, thumba langu!” Fuwu wanguti “Awa upusika ndangu, wona chingwi ichi ndamanga sonu ndiguza pakwenda”. Kalulu wangukana ndipu wanguti “Tikengi ku Mphala yikatiyeruzgi”. Mphala yingudumuwa mlandu ndi kucheketa chingwi cho Fuwu wangumangiya Thumba. Ŵanguchito thumba liya ndikumpaska Kalulu. Zuwa linyaki lo Kalulu wayendanga, Fuwu wangumusaniya ndipu wanguti, “Ndato mchira wangu!” Kalulu wanguti “ake! yiwi Fuwu m’chira ngwangu.” Fuwu wangukana ndipu wanguti, “Ndato ngwangu”. Ŵanguluta ku Mphala kuti yikayeruzgi. Ku Mphala kuwa, mlandu wungutowe Fuwu. Ŵangudumuwa m’chira waku Kalulu ndi kupaska Fuwu.


Tortoise went to beg food from people. To carry his bag, he tied it to a long string and wore it round his neck; as he walked along, the bag was coming behind him.

When he was on his way, Hare came up behind him and said, "I've found it, my bag!" Tortoise said "No, you're lying, see this string I've tied now I'm pulling it as I go." Hare refused to accept this and said "Let's go the Court, it will judge us." The Court examined the case and cut Tortoise's string which he'd tied the bag with. They took that bag and gave it to Hare. Another day when Hare was walking along, Tortoise found him and said, "I've got my tail!" Hare said, "Nonsense, this is my tail, Tortoise." Tortoise refused to accept this and said, "What I've got is mine." They went to the Court so that it could make a judgement. In that Court, the case went in Tortoise's favour, they cut off Hare's tail and gave it to Tortoise.)


The Tonga language is tonal, with underlying tones High and non-High. Unlike Tumbuka, the high tones are not confined to the penultimate syllable of the word, but can be found in different places in different words.[7]

Most verb roots in Tonga are toneless, although there are a few such as bangulá "shout" or sambirá "learn" which have a tone on the final syllable of the stem; when a tone is final, as in the verb bangulá "shout", it tends to spread backwards to the penultimate syllable, giving the result bangǔlá (where ǔ represents a rising tone).[7]


Some of the Chitonga tenses are formed as follows:[7]

Present habitual or continuous:

  • ndívina – I am dancing (root -vin-)

Monosyllabic verbs or verbs starting with a vowel add -t(ú)- in this tense:

  • nditurgha – I eat, I am eating (root -ly-)
  • nditénda – I am walking (root -end-)

Past simple:

  • ndinguvína – I danced
  • ndingurgha – I ate
  • ndingwenda – I walked

Past habitual:

  • ndavínanga – I used to dance
  • ndarghanga – I was eating or I used to eat
  • ndayendanga – I was walking or I used to walk

Distant future:

  • ndívinenge – I will dance
  • ndirghengi – I will eat
  • ndiyendengi – I will walk


  1. ^ Tonga at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tonga (Nyasa)". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ Language map of Northern Malawi produced by the Centre for Language Studies of the University of Malawi
  5. ^ Turner, Rev. Wm. Y., Tumbuka–Tonga–English Dictionary. Hetherwick Press, Blantyre (Malawi), 1952.
  6. ^ Language Mapping Survey, p. 60-64.
  7. ^ a b c Mtenje, A.D. (1994) "Tone in Malawian Tonga verbs". Journal of Humanities, Nos 8/9, 1994/5.