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Part II: The Significance of the Nomenclatures and Artistic Value of Our Zambian Indigenous Languages: Tumbuka Language Example

By Mwizenge S, Tembo, Ph. D. Emeritus Professor of Sociology

The structure of the Tumbuka language includes investigating the phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics of the language. In explaining these four characteristics of the Tumbuka language, I will draw examples from this sentence:

“Nkhuluta kukaya sono nkharye sima ya kadende ka vimbunda kakurya para bana bagona!”

Translation: I am going home now to the village where I will eat nshima with baby pigeon relish which you eat when children are asleep.

Phonology closely scrutinizes and determines the smallest individual sounds in a language. Phonemes are changes in the sounds of the Tumbuka language that change the meaning of a word. In part of the sentence “para bana bagona” and “pala bana bagona”, the sounds “ra” in para and “la” in pala “l” “r” are not phonemes because these sounds do not change the meaning of the phrase. On the other hand, in the expression “Nkhuluta kukaya” and “Nkhaluta kukaya”, the sounds “nkhu” and “nkha” are phonemes as these two specifics different Tumbuka sounds change the meaning of the expression. When a Tumbuka person is learning the language either as a child or as an adult they have to learn all the rules of these sounds which is phonetics.

Morphology is how each individual speech sounds or phones are combined together to form a meaningful word. For example: “bagona” has three separate sounds; ba-go – na. The smallest word in Tumbuka that has a meaning is called a morph. For example, the word “iza” might be a morph that translated as “come” and has only two sounds; i-za. The classic example in English is the morph “it” as in “I ate it”.

Syntax is how the Tumbuka speakers arrange words and phrases creating sentences to convey a meaning. An example of a simple sentence in Tumbuka might be: “Nkhuluta ku kaya.” Translated “I am going home”. This comprises a subject, (nkhu or I)- a verb (luta) to go – and subject (kukaya – home). The sentence: “Nkhuluta kukaya sono nkharye sima ya kadende ka vimbunda kakurya para bana bagona!” is more complex.

Semantics is the meaning Tumbuka speakers attach to all words. While as the entire sentence in our Tumbuka sentence conveys a funny meaning, each individual word has its own meaning. Vimbunda for example are “pigeon domestic birds”. Sono means “now”. Sima is the staple food cooked from maize.

The reader should realize that the Tumbuka language is very complex when we learn just about the how of the mechanics of the spoken Tumubuka. But its emotional appeal that creates deep pleasure, social and cultural bonds of identity among the Tumbuka people are the deeper meanings the language conveys and the elegance the language might present among speakers. The pleasure occurs when the Tumbuka language is used for artistic creative expression in defining Tumbuka identity through folktales, proverbs, riddles, metaphors, poetry, satire, allegory, lyrics in songs and Tumbuka music. This article cannot discuss all of these many forms of Tumbuka language verbal expression and communication. This discussion will ne limited to Identity, song and music poetry, and riddles.

The Tumbuka invest tremendous cultural capital in choosing a name for a baby as a life long form of identity. The first and obvious form of ultimate Tumbuka identity is choosing a traditional Tumbuka name for a newly born baby. The name that is carefully chosen with an appropriate meaning and given to the baby at this time is called “Zina la pamdotho” or “Name of the umbilical cord”. The naming customs of the baby are discussed in detail in my book: “Zambian Traiditonal Names”. Virtually all Tumbukas choose a new name for themselves once they reach puberty. This name change has deep cultural significance and essential functions of meaning of the identity of the Tumbuka individual.

Men In the village sitting and chatting at the mphala in the evening around the fire.
Men In the village sitting and chatting at the mphala in the evening around the fire.
Men In the village sitting and chatting at the mphala in the evening around the fire.

The best example of the Tumbuka songs of poetry and music is from my childhood in the village in Lundazi in the early 1960s. We were ten boys at Seleta village who were between the age of 8 and 10 years old who used to play together. We would go to the bush to fetch fruits, hunt birds, and go to the Lundazi river to swim. One cousin would sing all day as we walked and played around. He would sing Vimbuza and Vyanusi dance songs, he would sing songs women sung when they used pestle and mortar to pound maize, he would sing hoeing songs. One of my most favorite song my cousin Binke sung was this one.

Iwe Binkhe iwe! (You Binkhe!)

Kaceme awuso kumphala (Go and call your father from the mphala)

Yayi adada ukati amama bakumucemani (You should say father mother is calling you)

Baye uku baluwa jino (When they go this way they have a tooth ache)

Baye uyu seko zakonda (When they go that way they are laughing)

Yayi adada ukati amama bakumucemani (Tell your father mother is calling you)

Explaining this form of Tumbuka oral poetry culture which is deeply embedded in a simple song would require many pages. It is even more difficult to unpack the complex meaning of the song to outsiders, non-Tumbuka speakers and even modern Tumbuka speakers who have never stepped a foot in the village culture. These are the challenges of maintaining the continuity of not just the spoken Tumbuka language but the deeper cultural meanings.

Numerous Tumbuka riddles are shared normally during the evening either in the moonlight or around a fire. There are three examples:

1. Kanevai kane kana mala mciundo

(My razor has mala in the verandah)

Answer: Mphelo

Mphelo is a large stone, (approximately eighteen inches long and six inches wide) on which women in the village may grind corn and finger millet by crushing it using a smaller stone. It is usually located in the corridor or verandah of the house. Mala is a location toward the end of the mouse’s hole in which it stores food and nurtures its young. This riddle is rich with metaphor and symbolism.

2. Nyumba yane yina mzati umoza

(My house has only one support)

Answer: a Mushroom

3. Para nchebe yane yucimbira mcira ufupika

(As my dog runs its tail gets shorter)

Answer: As you sew using the needle its cotton thread gets shorter

Enjoying, appreciating, and celebrating of our Tumbuka Identity and the Identities of members of all the 72 Zambian Indigenous languages has many challenges. What every Zambian should do Is not to bemoan that this author has only explored the Tumbuka language. Instead, you should contemplate and apply some of these principles to such Zambian languages as Tonga, Lozi, Bemba, Kaonde, Chewa, Lunda, and many of the 72 Indigenous languages.