A trading language
spoken or understood by more than 5 million people in central Sub-Saharan Africa
, including parts of Zambia
, and Tanzania
. Nyanja per se
is most widely spoken in Zambia, where it is the primary language base of Eastern Province, and also very common in the capital city of Lusaka
. Nyanja is very similar to the Chewa
language spoken in much of Malawi, however, and thus most widely understood in that country.
Nyanja is classified as Niger-Congo by family, Benue-Congo by subgroup, and Bantu by branch. It has acquired vocabulary and syntax from neighboring dialects including Ngoni, Kunda, Nsenga, and Tumbuka. The former three dialects, as well as Chewa, are mutually intelligible, with Tumbuka more of a stretch. Nyanja speakers can generally pick up on a fair amount of Bemba, and some may also find they can understand a small amount of Swahili, although the Arabic does tend to muddle things.
There is some confusion regarding what, exactly, the term Nyanja describes. Although there are Chewa, Ngoni, Nsenga, Kunda, and Tumbuka tribes, there is no Nyanja tribe. Thus, you would be hard-pressed to find any self-identifying "Nyanja" in Zambia, Malawi, or elsewhere.
Some authorities prefer use of the term "ChiNyanja" (or "CiNyanja," depending on the transliterator). This is the word meaning "the Nyanja language" in Nyanja -- i.e., what Nyanja-speakers say when they would be saying "Nyanja" in English. Thus, to say "I speak ChiNynaja" in English is more or less equivalent to saying "I speak Nihongo" or "I speak francais."
Starting simple: Muli bwanji is Nyanja's most common greeting. It literally means "How are you?", so you should be prepared to respond Ndiri bwino, kaya namwe? which means "I am fine, how are you?"
Nouns in Nyanja, as in most Bantu languages, are categorized in classes; adjectives and verbs agree with these nouns based on those classes. The classes are generally distinguishable by their prefixes. Each noun class has different prefixes for singular and plural. Most noun classes have two different prefixes for each number; rules of syntax govern whether one or both are used as modifiers. These prefixes may also give the listener a clue as to the type of noun. For example, nouns for people all fall under the first noun class, in which the singular prefix is "mu-" (munthu means one person) and the plural is "a-" (anthu is multiple people). My personal favorite noun class is the diminutive, a whole noun class reserved just for the small or ugly; kamunthu is "small person," or "ugly person," or perhaps "small, ugly person."
Prounouns get a bit tricky. Ine is "me," and "ndine is "I." When talking about oneself without prior context, it is generally best to use both. The verb "to be" is often not necessary when using ndine, as it is implied. Thus, for "I am Snark," you would say Ine ndine Snark. This structure helps explain why many Nyanja speakers begin self-descriptive sentences in English with, "Me, I am..."
Possessives are altered by their number and person, as well as the noun class of the object owned. For example, "my child" is mwana wanga, since mwana is child, "-nga" is the base for the first person singular possessive, and "wa-" is the prefix for the first singular noun class in which mwana falls. (The "u" from the "mu-" prefix is elided with the "-a" from the base of the noun, "ana".) Ana anga is my children; ana is multiple children, and the first plural noun class takes "a-" as its prefix, as above.
As for verbs: Nyanja infinitives all start with "ku-"; for example, "to eat" is "kudya, and "to go" is kupita. Almost all Nyanja verbs have more than one syllable minus their infinitive prefix, a rule to which kudya and a few others are obvious exceptions. Multisyllabic verbs in Nyanja are modified in tense, number, person, and form by prefixes, infixes, and/or suffixes. Thus, "I will go" is ndizapita: "ndi-" is the first person singular, "-za-" is the (future) tense, and "-pita" is go, as before. The negative form of verbs is formed by "si-" or "sa-"; "I will not go" is sindizapita. Rude imperatives are easy: the verb root will suffice. For example, Pita! will send a person off (though not as quickly as Choka!, which is more usual and more rude). Adding the suffix "-ni" makes the command more polite, and the additional addition of "-ko" makes it particularly polite. Pitaniko -- "please go, please" -- might be used when pleading with a chief to go to an important meeting. If he actually goes, you would probably say Zikomo kwambiri: "Thank you very much."
Nyanja sentence structure proceeds SVO -- first subject, then verb, then object. The two most common prepositions are mu and ku. These can both translate "to," or "from," depending on context. The former is used for "inside" and the latter for "outside." For example, if one were in Zambia and wanted to say, "I am from Zambia," one would say Ndine wa muZambia; "I am from America" would then be Ndine wa kuAmerica. It gets easier as you speak more.
Putting it all together: a small taste of Nyanja for your linguistic pleasure:
Muli bwanji! Mverani. Dzina langa ndine Snark. Ndine muzungu wamene wachokera ku America. Nabwera kudya ana anu.
Which translates, roughly:
Hello! Please listen. My name is Snark. I am a white person who comes from America. I've come to eat your children.
Since parents in rural Zambia have been known to tell their children "be good or else the muzungu will come and eat you," this introduction generally gets a good laugh from Zambian friends.