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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

Putting words together in ciNsenga

Date Released: Wed, 22 February 2012 00:00 +0200

Rhodes linguist Ron Simango presented a brief look at the grammar of ciNsenga at a Departmental Research Seminar on Tuesday 22 February.  He showed how this language, from the border of Malawi and Zambia, handles subject marking, coordination and noun classes.

CiNsenga is closely related to South Africa's Nguni languages, including isiZulu and isiXhosa.  Like most members of the Bantu language family, it has an intricated system of noun classes to which words belong.  In CiNsenga's case, there are about 17 of these classes.

In English, the subject of a sentence has to agree with the verb that follows it.  This is why we say "I am sick", and not "I is sick": the first-person singular pronoun "I" needs a first-person singular form of the verb "to be" to go with it.  In ciNsenga and most other Bantu languages, a noun class prefix is placed on the verb to match the noun class prefix on the subject of the sentence.  For instance, in Msimbi akakazinge lindanda (The girl will fry an egg), the first a- in the verb akakazinge (will fry) is a subject marker for Noun Class 1 which agrees with the noun class prefix m- in msimbi (the girl), which also belongs to Noun Class 1.

Where this gets interesting is when two nouns from different noun classes are linked together using "and": which of the 17 noun classes' subject markers is used on the verb?  In English, if two singular subjects are joined by "and", the verb takes a plural form: we say "Mike and Jim are going shopping", not "Mike and Jim is going shopping".  In the same way, ciNsenga uses the subject marker from a plural noun class when two singular subjects are joined togetherr, but the rules for which plural noun class is chosen are quite complicated. 

For instance, in the sentence Cimuti na litepo vaphya na mulilo (The tree and the leaf were burnt by the fire), the word for 'tree' (cimuti) belongs to Noun Class 7, and the word for 'leaf' (litepo) belongs to Noun Class 5, but the verb, 'burnt' (-aphya) carries the subject marker for Noun Class 8 (v-).  This appears to be the 'default' when the two subjects are non-human, but when they are human, the Noun Class 2 subject marker (?-) seems to be the 'default', as in Lidoda na msimbi ?efwika mailo (The man and the girl arrived yesterday).