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What is Ndebele?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ndebele is a name given to two distinct languages, the Northern Ndebele language spoken in Zimbabwe, and the Southern Ndebele language spoken in South Africa. Both languages are part of the Nguni group of the Bantu languages, but have some substantial differences.

Northern Ndebele is spoken in Zimbabwe by roughly 1.5 million people. It is identified by the ISO-639-3 code nde, and is usually referred to as Northern to differentiate it from the Southern language. It may also be known as Tebele, Sindebele, or Isinde’bele. This language is also spoken by just over 8,000 people in Botswana.

The Matabele people, who are also known as the Ndebele, split from King Shaka’s Zulus in the early-19th century. In the subsequent decades, they moved north into Zimbabwe, and both assimilated into and were absorbed by various groups within the nation. The Matabele adopted the Ndebele language, but combined it when many aspects of the Zulu language. For this reason, Northern Ndebele is in many ways closer to Zulu than it is to the Southern language, both in terms of construction and vocabulary.

Southern Ndebele is spoken in South Africa by the Ndebele people, also sometimes called the amaNdebele. It is spoken by nearly 600,000 people in South Africa. It is identified by the ISO-639-3 code nbe, and is sometimes also called Nrebele or Transvaal Ndebele.

Sometime in the late 16th century, these people separated from the main Nguni group. They were led by a chief, Musi, to the area around what is now Pretoria by the beginning of the 17th century. Over the next centuries, Ndebele would become even more distinct from Nguni, becoming its own language. While the Northern version can be said to have adopted many traits of Zulu, placing it closer on a continuum to that language, Southern Ndebele could be said to lie more closely akin to the various languages of the Sotho-Tswana group, such as Sotho or Lozi.

Southern Ndebele is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. It is not particularly widely spoken, and does not enjoy the same place of precedence in classes and official publications that languages such as Afrikaans, English, isiZulu, or isiXhosa do. Nonetheless, a large number of parents teach their children the language, and it is used widely within the cultural group.

Both Northern and Southern Ndebele contain three distinct click groups, linking them to other Nguni languages, such as isiXhosa or isiZulu. One click is represented by the letter c. This click is made with the tip of the tongue directly up against the backside of the teeth. This sounds similar to the familiar scolding sound of tsk-tsk. Another click is represented by the letter x. This click is made by placing the tongue on one side along the roof of the mouth, in what is called a lateral click. This click sounds roughly like what many people do when they are clicking to call a horse to them. The last click is represented by the letter q. This click is made by putting the tip of the tongue up against the middle of the roof of the mouth. This makes a sort of popping or clucking sound.

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Discussion Comments
By anon326496 — On Mar 22, 2013

The northern and southern Ndebele are two distinct group sthat share very little in common. The northern Ndebele were superior in warfare but the southern Ndebele expect craftspeople. There's a lot more to distinguish the groups. It might take a whole book to explain the differences. It's like asking the difference between Italians and Mexicans. After all, both have Latin roots.

By anon191072 — On Jun 28, 2011

Initially there was a king called Mnguni who ruled the nguni nation and he had four sons: Luzumane, Swazi, Ndebele and Xhosa. Ndebele first broke away to form the Ndebele nation and soon after, others followed suit and that is how the four distinct nguni nations came about, but this does not mean that there are no other nguni nations that exist. We have BaPhuti in southern Lesotho, Hlubi, Bhaca etc.

By anon169372 — On Apr 21, 2011

In South Africa there are two main groups of the Ndebele Speaking people.We have the Southern Transvaal Ndebele and the Northern Transvaal Ndebele.The languages are closely related though the South Transvaal Ndebele falls within the zunda nguni languages as they use the root "zi" while the Northern Transvaal Ndebele falls within the tekela nguni languages as they use the root "ti" .

By anon74891 — On Apr 04, 2010

Was it not the Zulu (who only then there after began to assume a united nationality), that broke away from the Matebele nation? And as far as I have read it wasn't Shaka that led them away, but his ancestor Cetswayo.

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