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

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

I had just traveled by bus a grueling ten hours from Lusaka the Capital City of Zambia to Lundazi a distance of 747 Kms. or 464 miles. This was several decades ago. Lundazi is a small provincial town in the north-eastern region of Zambia in the heart of the five hundred thousand Tumbuka people who live in the district close to the border with Malawi. The bus had just come to a complete stop when we passengers stood up to disembark. In the midst of the exuberating moment, one man said loudly in Tumbuka:

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.

Everyone broke into loud laughter. I had a big tearful belly laugh and even exchanged a few chit chat expressions with the man in question as we happily disembarked the bus and parted. Each time I have recalled that moment over the years I have smiled and often laughed even when I am alone.

Why was what the man said very funny? Would Tumbuka new and younger speakers today find this sentence funny and let alone appreciate its deeper meanings? I found that sentence deeply funny because my mother tongue of Tumbuka communicates emotional and cultural intimacy with my fellow language speakers. This social and cultural intimacy is true whether I meet with the Tumbuka speakers in a bus in Lundazi, meet them at a shopping mall in Lusaka, on the street in Tokyo in Japan, Beijing in China, London in the United Kingdom, Paris in France, Buenos Airies in Argentina in the South America, or New York city in the United States.

What makes this shared bond the author has possible with his fellow Tumbuka indigenous language speakers? Indeed, what makes it possible for the millions of other Zambians to share this emotional and cultural bond of intimacy with fellow speakers of their own 72 different Zambian tribes indigenous languages be it Bemba, Tonga, Lozi, Kaonde, Soli to mention a few? The same type of close social intimacy does not seem to exist when we Zambians speak the official formal non-indigenous English language among ourselves.

Language Conditions

There are certain historical and contemporary conditions that must exist in order for the social and cultural intimacy and bond to occur among the Tumbuka indigenous language speakers. The most primary condition is that Tumbuka language speakers must first be familiar with and have established the nomenclature of the language. Other conditions that must follow are lexicography, orthography, etymology, structure of the language which includes phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Lastly, the Tumbuka language is not just used to communicate information among the speakers but it is simultaneously a vessel for deep artistic expression. This deeper artistic expression includes folklore, folktales or vilapi, proverbs, parables, riddles or ntharika, metaphors, poetry, allegory, comedy, and many other oral mediums. The deeper artistic expression used in the Tumbuka language is why everyone laughed in the bus including this author responding with a deep tearful belly laugh.


It is very common for social scientists to borrow or adopt terms from the natural sciences to use in the social sciences in general and sociology in particular. Nomenclature would be the practice of creating words to name everything in the Tumbuka language both in the social and physical world in which the members live. These could be thousands of names such as dongo (soil), nyerere (ant), mathematics (zibalo), mbavi (axe), mwanakazi (woman), vikuni (trees), kuchanya na nyenyezi (cosmology and the stars). The Tumbuka nomenclature includes names or nouns for both physical objects and theoretical ideas. The nomenclature of both objects and theoretical ideas is where artistic expression comes from.


Lexicography in the process of creating a dictionary of the Tumbuka language or any language. This means that all or most of the hundreds or even thousands of words identified in the Tumbuka nomenclature would be found in the language’s dictionary after conducting the lexicography. Before the British and early European missionaries created some of the earliest written Tumbuka dictionaries in the 1800s, the Tumbuka had an oral lexicography. In other words, the elders of the language were the informal oral keepers or custodians of the language’s words or nomenclature. The Tumbuka lexicon was passed from generation to generation through the oral traditions.


Orthography is the study of the rules that have been established about how to spell Tumbuka words correctly. Tumbuka speakers may have great difficulty spelling words today as we do not have a lexicography or written dictionary of the Tumbuka words. This is why it is difficult and confusing among the Tumbuka speakers to communicate in a written format as we have no wide spread and meaningful common orthography. For example, how do we spell “kucimbizgha” to chase? Is is “kuchimbizya” or “kucimbizgha” or “kucimbiza”?


As Tumbukas, we need to understand the etymology of our Tumbuka language which is studying the origin of the Tumbuka words may be in relation to earlier languages we may have interacted with. For example, many Tumbuka words share some of their phonemes or sounds with over two hundred Bantu languages including especially Swahili. These languages stretch from southern Somalia in the horn of Africa, through East Africa in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, through Namibia all the way to the tip of the Southern African continent in South Africa. Dr. Yizenge Chondoka (2007) has determined that the Tumbuka who are now in Northern Malawi and Lundazi district originally migrated from the Congo in the 1400s.

The rest of this article is in Part Two.

Nkhunda are domestic pigeons whose meat is a rare delicacy among the Tumbuka. This is one of the many reasons the man’s statement was heart warming and very funny Nkhunda TWO Edited May 3 2022
Nkhunda are domestic pigeons whose meat is a rare delicacy among the Tumbuka. This is one of the many reasons the man’s statement was heart warming and very funny Nkhunda TWO Edited May 3 2022

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