In the course of cataloguing my library, I’m learning a lot about my books (many of which I bought after a cursory inspection and never investigated until now) and being forced to figure out linguistic details that I could gloss over when simply sticking the books on the appropriate shelf. This is the case with Umthwakazi, by P. S. Mahlangu (Longmans 1957), which according to this site is a historical account of Mzilikazi and the founding of the amaNdebele nation and was the first book published in Ndebele. The back cover says “NDEBELE (The Owner of the State),” the parenthetical phrase being apparently a translation of the book’s title; googling “umthwakazi” suggests that it consists of a prefix u- and the noun Mthwakazi, now used by Ndebele nationalists as the name of the Ndebele nation (considered as independent from Zimbabwe). The online Ndebele-English translator says “u-Mthwakazi: the nation of the Ndebele people,” and a news story from earlier this year quotes Godfrey Ncube as saying “Mthwakazi means ‘a nation’. That is what the Ndebele people were called.”

Now, Ndebele is a Nguni language that split off from Zulu quite recently; Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages says “Zulu and Ndebele are still to some extent mutually intelligible, though idioms differ and Ndebele has clearly borrowed numerous terms from the languages previously spoken in its territory” (where it arrived from what is now South Africa in the early 19th century). So I’ve tried to use my Zulu dictionaries to translate the subtitle and author line: “Izindaba ZamaNdebele Zemvelo. Zilotshwe ngu- P.S. Mahlangu.” So far I’ve learned that izindaba is the plural of -daba and means ‘reports, accounts,’ and zemvelo seems to be a form of -velo ‘nature.’ If anyone can provide further enlightenment, be my guest.

Incidentally, Dalby provides a sidebar account of the complicated history of the name of the language:

Speakers call their language isiNdebele and themselves amaNdebele. The word is correctly pronounced with three short es of which the first is stressed, Ndĕ’bĕlĕ.
AmaNdebele appears to have been their own version of the name given to them by the Sotho and Tswana speakers in whose land they were settled — maTebele. Early English-speaking explorers heard and adopted this Sotho form, calling the people Matabele and their northern domain Matabeleland.

And this site says that the name “was probably derived from the Sotho-Tswana term tebele, meaning a stranger, or one who plunders.”


  1. “Izindaba ZamaNdebele Zemvelo” in Sesotho turns into “Litaba tsa Matebele XXXX.” I can’t figure out what “Zemvelo” would be.
    Litaba means information, news, all that requires discussion. Matebele, as you’ve probably guessed, mean amaNdebele. In Sesotho, the ama- become Ma-. For example, Mazulu, Mafora (the French), Makhooa (white folks), Maburu (the boers), maqhotsa (the Xhosas), and so on.
    Again, zemvelo beats me. A wild guess would be “of the heart.” But there I’m guessing, because in Sesotho it would be “tsa pelo.”
    I will put the question before my country-folk. Or you can.

  2. IsiNdebele was the field methods language when I took the class in grad school. In zemvelo, if I remember correctly, will be the possessed plural form of the noun class – a contraction of za-im-velo ; so if -velo means ‘nature’ or something like that, it should mean “accounts of the nature(s) of the Ndebele people”. z- in agreement with izi- (like z-ama- in amaNdebele).

  3. Ah, thank you both! And Claire, if you’ve actually studied Ndebele, you should be able to help with zilotshwe as well. (No, I’m never satisfied.)

  4. It was 6 years and about 10 languages ago, give me a break! Pelling 1971 to the rescue. lotshwa is the passive root of loba ‘to write’. I can’t remember when you get final -e as opposed to final -a on verbs but someone can probably help us out here, subjunctive was one, definitely, maybe all passive roots too? zi- is the agreement marker again, so it’s a passive participle (or at least it looks licit to translate it as one) and ngu- is the instrumental prefix. So “written by P. S. Mahlangu”.

  5. Heh. See, you complain but you came through. Many thanks, and I owe you one.

  6. when you do not have something to write about, please just do something else but do not write lies about the mahlangu language. isindebele firstly does not come from the zulus, the zulus come from shaka, and at that time the ndebele people were already there from one of our fathers king Musi, you spelled zilotjwe in a wrong way.

  7. I am looking for Ndebele spekaing people in Gauteng. I speak Limpopo Ndebele.

  8. The last writer confuses South Africa Ndebele and Zimbabwe Ndebele. He belongs to the former while you are clearly discussing the latter. Zimbabwe Ndebele is closely associated with Zulu since they originated from Zululand. When I speak Ndebele to Zulu person they understand and vice versa, the difference is mainly in pronunciation.
    Your spelling of zilotshwe is correct; coming from loba to write which turns in a funny way (called ukulwangisa) in past tense to “lotshwa”. The “e” is an ending in past tense of form “has been”

  9. Moyo you have to understand that the Ndebele people from Zimbabwe are not from Zululand Mzilikazi is from Zululand not the people, the people are from the manala tribe of the South African Ndebele. Please get your facts right that the way we write our south African Ndebele is not the same way as the way Zulu is written. Zilotswe is Zulu or Zimbabwean Ndebele but in South Africa we write zilotjwe

  10. AmaNdebele of Nzunza were further divided in clans after
    Zulu warrior who turned to be a war-lord Mzilikazi’s
    ruthless attack.
    After the murder of Magodongo and his heir son Mloyi by
    Mzilikazi at Mkobola around 1823,the leadership was passed
    to Magodongo’s brother Siboko,who was to hold as a regent
    Mloyi’s son TJAMBOWE(iRhasa).Tjambowe with a disability on
    his eye was not allowed to take over.The reigns were passed
    on to another brother
    of Magodongo,Somdeyi who was then a regent to Tjambowe’s
    still young son Ndlambisa.After Somdeyi’s death in 1839 it
    was taken by his younger brother Mabhoko from the lower
    Mabhoko never returned the kingship to
    Ndlambisa.To this day the kingship was passed through
    Mabhoko’s line creating a new clan in Ndlambisa’s house

  11. i think people should stop relating the ndebele people from south africa to the zulus, our languages are different

  12. Pou geb says:

    If you say u aren’t Zulu descendents yet that’s the history we know, further your claim that u are the Ndebeles of South Africa does not hold water, that isindebele of South Africa is very unique and I argue most of the zimbabwe ndebeles would struggle to understand that language, I bet most of u would rather prefer Zulu to it.

  13. Lars (the original one) says:

    @Pou geb, don’t be disappointed if Harris Mahlangu doesn’t reply back; the comment you are replying to is 13 years old and from a time when people could manage to keep track of where they had commented.

  14. John Cowan says:

    There used to be a search engine for that: you gave it the string you put in “Website” fields on blogs and it would return lists of postings you had commented on (ordered by reverse date, I think). But alas, it stopped providing this feature after about a year, and then (IIRC) folded.

  15. Lars (the original one) says:

    Oh, neat, that would be so simple to do if you were programming a web crawler. (Though currently my “Website” is empty because Akismet, and since it was abused by spammers for such a long time I suspect that most commenters don’t bother. Except here, maybe).

    But even if Harris Mahlangu had such an engine it’s doubtful they would revisit a 13 year old post regularly, unless the engine could alert them to new replies too.

  16. It’s an interesting show of two lines of folk thinking about linguistic relatedness though: on one hand two languages are merely “different” therefore not related; on the other hand the common ancestor ends up identified with one of the descendants, quite likely seen as “older”.

    Of course not even two idiolects are exactly identical, and what ends up counting as “the same” language is in practice wonderfully vague. People called “Ndebele” surely must speak a single “Ndebele language”? Nope, they can easily turn out to speak two distinct languages of slighly different origins.

    (On a third note, interestingly I never have happened across a reconstruction of Proto-Southern Bantu or even of just Proto-Nguni — even though these are relatively well-known languages ultimately descended from the relatively well-known Proto-Bantu. With additional input from other disciplines, I wonder if it would be possible to reconstruct what the original PNg ethnonym was?)

  17. Trond Engen says:

    I never have happened across a reconstruction of Proto-Southern Bantu or even of just Proto-Nguni — even though these are relatively well-known languages ultimately descended from the relatively well-known Proto-Bantu

    I think it’s because the continuous contact situation with migrations, splits and mergers has blurred the picture from close range.

  18. It has been a confusion in some instances about isizwe sa Kwa-Ndebele, the Northern Ndebele according to the history we have read it says they were brought to Zimbabwe, however not all were from Nguniland/KZN. Some were from Eastern Transvaal, Transvaal and midvaal. There were Ndebele Speaking and Zulu speaking natives. The reason Mzilikazi flee to Zimbabwe and changed his identity was mainly political and socio-economic transformation which later earned him the Northen Ndebele speaking.

    First of all, Ndebele around year 1400* was never Zulu nor related to such yet some account claimed him being from the Zulu, according to facts there were no Zulu before Shaka, although the founder of the clan was Zulu I kaMalandela (c. 1627 – c. 1709). Let’s go back to Shaka Zulu for instance, Shaka kaSenzangakhona’s lifespan starts from c. 1787 – 24 September 1828.

    Chief Ndebele was living with his people in the territory of the Bhaca and Hlubi south of the Drakensberg Mountains which they called “uKhahlamba”. The capital settlement in this territory was called eLundini. Chief Ndebele had broken away from the larger Nguni group and established his own rule over his own people who would take his name as the name of their nation.

    Jonono, the great-grandson of Ndebele moved north with his people and settled in the area just north east of modern-day Ladysmith in the mountains surrounding the mouth of the Cwembe River. Jononoskop which is approximately 30 km north east of Ladysmith is said to be the burial place of Jonono.

    Jonono was succeeded as “Ngwenyama” which is the title of the King of the Ndebele, by his eldest son Nanasi who legend holds, was resistant to all poisons. One tale tells of how Nanasi feasted on the top of a nearby hill on poisonous fruit only to discover that he remained unharmed by the fruit. Today the alleged site is called “Butiswini” from ubuthi esiswini which roughly means ‘a poisoned stomach’. Oral tradition does not tell us why Nanasi was eating poisonous fruit in the first place.

    Before all these, we should remember that the first Ndebele King was Ingwenyama uLanga. See below the chronological sequence:

    •Langa – circa1225*
    •Hlanga – 1250*
    •Kungu – 1275*
    •Langa II – 1300*
    •Hlanga II – 1325*
    •MntuNgweI – 1350*
    •Mabhudu – 1375*
    •Ndebele – 1400*
    •Mkhalangwana – 1425*
    •MntuNgwe II – 1450*
    •Jonono – 1475*
    •Nanasi – 1500*
    •Mafana – 1525*
    •Mhlanga – 1550*
    •Musi – 1575*
    •Ndzundza – (1600 – 1621)
    •Mrhetjha – (1621 – 1642)
    •Magobholi – (1642 –1677)
    •Bongwe – (1677 – 1693)
    •Sindeni – (1693 – 1701)
    •Mahlangu – (1701 – 1745)
    •Phaswana – (1745 – 1756)
    •Maridili – (1756 – 1765)
    •Mdalanyana – (1765 – 1771)
    •Mgwezana – (1771 – 1804)
    •Dzela – (1804 – 1806)
    •Mrhabuli – (1806 – 1811)
    •Magodongo – (1811 – 1827)
    •Sibhoko – (1827 – 1835)
    •SoMdeyi – (1835 – 1840)
    •Mabhoko – (1840 – 1865)
    •Mkhephuli – (1865 – 1873)
    •Rhobongo – (1873 – 1879)
    •Nyabela – (1879 – 1902)
    •Fene – (1902 – 1921)
    •Mayitjha – (1921–1961)
    •MabusaMabhokoII – (1961 – 1992)
    •NyumbaboMayitjha II – (1992 – 2005)
    •MbusiMabhoko III – (2006 – current)

  19. Sipho Mahlangu-Maziya says:

    Tshepiso Mahlangu, I wonder how far can you substantiate on that wikipedia’s entry on the History of AmaNdebele which was as a result of Thabo Mbeki’s and his Nhlapo Commission propaganda for social engineering which was meant to have each tribe in South Africa to have a single paramount king (ingwenyama). if we begin with the surname Ndebele, it has no existence in all the clan names of the Ndebele people and both the royal families of Ndzundza and Manala can recount their clan names to the extent of King Musi. Mafana has some reference in some instances but the likes of Mhlanga, Jonono, Nanasi I never heard of them.
    If we consider that historically our ancestors were illiterate, it follows that most of their historical accounts were instances of oral account passed from generation to generation. Oral account of history is notorious for its bias and lack of consistent and moreover the lines get blurred along the way.
    Against that background how come do we have such a detailed lineage of Kings that dates back to the 13th century and yet we can’t account for some historical events of that took place in the 19th century. For instance we can state reasons for the battles of royal Pedi half brothers, Sekhukhune and Mampuru which led to Mampuru murduring Sekhukhune. These events took place around the time when some native South African were literate and at the presence of some colonial advocates who had the privilege of History writers. This argument that I’m raising seek to dispel the postulations that there was a Nguni King called Mnguni who originated from King Ntu. Had you ever heard of a Kingdom of Mnguni or a Chieftain for that matter in South Africa. The scope of this website won’t allow me to state my argument fully, but as point of departure the nomenclature of the kingdoms having European elements of affixing numerical qualifier to kings of the same name is so questionable (•Langa II – 1300*
    •Hlanga II – 1325*•MntuNgwe II – 1450* ). This was never a case for African Kingdoms it only occurred on the advent of colonialism. It was never a in the Congo-Niger Kingdoms where the Bantu speaking languages and Kingdoms originated. The reference to the Congo-Niger Kingdoms refers to well documented history of the Bantu with written reference from as early as 9th century. These kingdoms were literate and were in constant contact with the Arabians and the Europeans through trade and other political and social matters that prevailed during that time.

  20. January First-of-May says:

    but as point of departure the nomenclature of the kingdoms having European elements of affixing numerical qualifier to kings of the same name is so questionable

    It’s a European tradition, yes, but these days it’s applied by default to any list of monarchs featuring multiple instances of the same name, regardless of its origin.

    (I wonder how far back this idea actually goes. IIRC the Romans didn’t put regnal numbers on their names – i.e. names like “Theodosius II” are a relatively modern invention – but I wouldn’t be especially surprised if it turns out that some of their other contemporaries did…)

  21. SFReader says:

    If anybody wonders, Mahlangu is the name of the ruling dynasty of the Matabele kingdom.

    Languagehat is no stranger to princely participants (I recall the Princess Mirsky), but this thread has the record.

  22. Sipho Mahlangu-Maziya says:

    Yes SFReader Mahlangu is the surname of the AmaNdebele dynasty.
    In fact we appreciate platforms like where there’s an open discourse of culture, linguistic and other socio-relevant issues particularly relating to African history as most of African history is not well documented.

  23. Sipho Mahlangu-Maziya says:

    Returning to the question of the title of P.S Mahlangu book, though he is of South African AmaNdebele in his book he writes about the Zimbabwean AmaNdebele of Mzilikazi.
    There’s an explanation of the term Mthwakazi on Wikipedia but I can’t comprehend as it puts Mthwa- Kazi: Mthwa being an adjective and Kazi being a superlative suffix of that word, same as in Mzili-Kazi. What I don’t I understand is that Mthwakazi was a tribe ruled by Mthwa and his tribe was Mthwakazi, a tribe which Mzilikazi joined forces with when he settled in what is now known as Zimbabwe. I’m baffled by the use of Nguni superlative KAZI. If the tribe existed as Mthwakazi before Mzilikazi arrived then they would have used a superlative that was related to their language or one the language that was common in that place at the time. The definition on wikipedia gives an effect that Kazi is a superlative.
    Izindaba zaMaNdebele zemvelo could mean: AmaNdebele’s matters of nature.
    it could also mean: AmaNdebele’s matters of origin.
    the word; Mvelo is an homonym as well as the word izindaba
    izindaba is in plural form which as homonym can either be a matter or news/stories in singular form udaba can mean a matter or a case.
    Ilotshwe ngu P.S Mahlangu translates to written by P.S Mahlangu
    The Zimbabwean Ndebele and the South African Ndebele are all Nguni languages and are mutually intelligible for Zulu and Zimbabwean Ndebele they’ll write: ilotshwe ngu P.S Mahlangu.
    For South African Ndebele they’ll write ilotjwe ngu P.S Mahlangu. The pronunciation is just the same with indistinct slight difference.

  24. Thanks, that’s a useful explanation.

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