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 right 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

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