Nyanja: A Brief Syntactic Analysis of Structure

I believe strongly that language and culture are deeply intertwined and that one cannot exist without the other. Language unites people who share common environments, problems, and ideas and allows these to be shared with other people. This interrelates with syntax for me because it allows me to see why languages have the structures they do as a reflection of their culture and ideas about language and what ideas or concepts need to be expressed. Since so many languages have become standards as second languages, I felt the need to look for a language and culture I knew nothing about, and feel not many people do, in order to truly understand this connection and it’s relevance to linguistics and syntax.

Nyanja belongs to the Niger-Congo family of languages in Africa. Nyanja has 989,000 speakers in Zambia which accounts for 11.7% of the population, 251,800 speakers in Zimbabwe, 3,200,000 in Malawi and 423,000 in Mozambique. It has 6 main dialects which are: Chichewa, Peta, Chingoni, Manganja, Nyase and Chikunda. Nyanja is the official language in Zambia of the police and Zambia Regiment and it is recognized for educational and administrative purposes. It is also used in media sources including newspapers, radio and television. (Ethnologue, 2002)

My native speaker consultant (NSA) was born and raised in Lusaka, the capitol city of Zambia and spent much of his life living there. Zambia has 9 provinces, of which Lusaka is one of them. In addition to English, he speaks Nyanja and Bemba, a tribal language. However, he cannot fluently speak his tribal language because Nyanja was more prevalently used in Lusaka while he was growing up and going through school. Although many languages are spoken in Lusaka, Nyanja was used as a central language to allow everyone to communicate. As for the impact of culture on the language, he says that, “Different cultures exist for different people of a certain tribe. I do not think that culture influences languages but rather a certain culture is tied up with a certain language. What I am trying to say is that language is as old as culture for a particular tribe of people.”

He says that being brought up in a city like Lusaka deprived him of knowing many words that he should have from Bemba. In the city his generation has began to incorporate many English words into Nyanja. Like many of his peers, he began to learn English in school at age 8. He says that until he and his siblings began to attend school and learn English, there were very few English words that permeated their vocabulary. He feels now that if he had been brought up in the country where his ancestors settled, he would probably know the deeper meaning behind his language and to be able to know the words for such things as colors, furniture and cutlery which now they simply borrow from English or other languages. As with many tribal languages, he feels that because his children will never really learn the entire language, since even he does not and could never pass it down, that there is a strong possibility of it dying out completely in a few generations.

There are several properties of Nyanja that stood out to me when I first began to hear it. The most striking to me was the simplicity of the structure. Nyanja is an agglutinative language which makes for somewhat simplistic sentence structure. The basic sentence structure is SVO. Due to the high usage of suffixation, Nyanja allows sentences to have null subjects since the necessary information about subject is encoded on the verb. In this manner, “be” sentences are comprised of one word which encodes all the necessary information about action, tense and subject as in Table 1 a and b. If referring to a specific person, the name is added prior to the verb as in c.

a. tinadya
3p-past-ate
We ate. b. nizayenda
1p-fut-walk
I will walk. c. Shari ayenda
Shari 2p-pres-walk
Shari is walking.
Table 1

The next step in complexity for this language is to add objects to “be” sentences to communicate more about the action. This is done by adding a noun after the verb. If we taken the sentence ‘we ate’ from Table 1 a, we can see how the structure changes in Table 2 when it is specified that ‘meat’ was eaten.

tinadya nyama
3p-past-ate meat
We ate the meat.
Table 2

The next step in complexity is to add complements which are added after the object. If we take the sentence ‘we ate the meat’ and change it to ‘we ate all of the meat’ the structure changes as in Table 3.

tinadya nyama tonse
3p-past-ate meat all
We ate all of the meat.
Table 3

Once I learned how to create a simple sentence that conveyed a complete meaning of who did what to whom and how, I wanted to know how to combine two thoughts. To do this, the adjunct is inserted between the object of the first action phrase and the subject of the next action to occur. In this manner I can create ‘we went walking after we ate the meat’ following the structure in Table 4.

tinadya nyama pamene tinayenda
3p-past-ate meat after 3p-past-walk
We went walking after we ate the meat.
Table 4

This is an interesting system of combination because the structure of the English sentence ‘we went walking after we ate the meat’ is actually ‘we ate meat after we walked’ in Nyanja. It seems that the adjective ‘after’ must precede the action that it is referring to. This is also evident in the sentence ‘we will sleep after we drink’ in Table 5. Here again, the action that is to occur next comes last in the structure.

tikumwa pamene tizagona
3p-pres-drink after 3p-fut-sleep
We will sleep after we drink.
Table 5

However, when combining with ‘and’ the structure is more straightforward as in Table 6. Here using the sentence ‘we walked all day and will sleep all night’ it is obvious that the process is different. In this case, the actions must be combined in the order that they will happen or the sentence is ungrammatical.

Tayenda muzuba yonse elo tizagona usiku yonse
3p-past-walk daytime all and 3p-fut-sleep nighttime all
We walked all day and will sleep all night.
Table 6

Nyanja seems like a simple language in structure; however I am sure that if I were to continue to study the language with my NSC I would discover that I have just scratched the surface. What is obvious from what I have learned about the language is that there is a complex system of morphology and that verb inflection is also intricate. Because of the simple combinatorial process of the languages, I can see why it would be a good choice as a trade language, as it is used in Zambia to unite those who do not all speak the same language and need to communicate. The fact that limitless ideas seem to be expressed in few words at a time causes me to wonder if I am missing more of what is actually going on with the syntax.

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