Bemba, A Linguistic Profile

This page is an updated version of: Spitulnik, Debra and Mubanga E. Kashoki.  2001.  “Bemba.”  In Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present.  J. Garry and C.  Rubino, eds.  Pp. 81-85.  New York and Dublin:  H. W. Wilson.  Click here for the original 2001 article.  How to cite this page.

Debra Spitulnik Vidali
Department of Anthropology, Emory University

Mubanga E. Kashoki
Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia

Language Name: Bemba. Autonym: iciBemba. Alternate spellings: ciBemba, ChiBemba, ichiBemba.

Location: Principally spoken in Zambia, in the Northern, Copperbelt, and Luapula Provinces; also spoken in southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and southern Tanzania.

Family: Bemba is a Central Bantu language. The Bantu language family is a branch of the Benue-Congo family, which is a branch of the Niger-Congo family, which is a branch of Niger-Kordofanian.

Related Languages: Most closely related to the Bantu languages Kaonde (in Zambia and DRC), Luba (in DRC), Nsenga and Tonga (in Zambia), and Nyanja/Chewa (in Zambia and Malawi).

Dialects: Principal dialects are: Aushi, Bemba, Bisa, Chishinga, Kunda, Lala, Lamba, Luunda, Ng’umbo, Swaka, Tabwa, and Unga.

Each of these dialects is distinguished by its association with a distinct ethnic group, culture, and territory of the same name. Each dialect exhibits minor differences of pronunciation and phonology, and very minor differences in morphology and vocabulary. Because Bemba is such a widely used lingua franca, varieties of the language exist in urban areas. Urban varieties exhibit large lexical input from English and have several names, including: chiKopabeeluti [chiCopperbelt], chiTauni [chiTown], and Town Bemba (Spitulnik 1998).

Number of Speakers: 5 – 6 million. An estimated 3.7 million people speak Bemba and related dialects as a first language; other speakers speak Bemba as a second language.

Origin and History

The Bemba people in Zambia originated from the Kola region in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire), and are an offshoot of the ancient Luba empire. Oral historical accounts differ slightly, but there is general agreement that the Luba immigrants arrived in the high plateau area of north-eastern Zambia (extending from Lake Bangweulu to the Malawi border) sometime during the mid 17th century. This area was already settled by agriculturalists, but by the end of the 18th century the Bemba people had established a powerful kingdom under the central authority of Chitimukulu, the paramount chief. Bemba rule continued to expand widely throughout north-eastern Zambia up until the end of the 19th century, when the first European missionaries and entrepreneurs began to vie for power in the area. In 1898-89, the British South Africa Company’s army wrested control of the Bemba territory, and in 1924 the British colony of Northern Rhodesia was established across the entire region of what is now present-day Zambia. Zambia gained independence from British domination in 1964.

In contemporary Zambia, the word “Bemba” actually has several meanings. It may designate people of Bemba origin, regardless of where they live, e.g. whether they live in urban areas or in the original rural Bemba area. Alternatively, it may encompass a much larger population which includes some eighteen different ethnic groups, who together with the Bemba form a closely related ethnolinguistic cluster of matrilineal-matrifocal agriculturalists known as the Bemba-speaking peoples of Zambia (see Dialects).

Because of the political importance of the Bemba kingdom and the extensive reach of the Bemba language, Bemba was targeted as a major language for the production of religious and educational materials in the early 1900s. The White Fathers missionaries published the earliest written texts on and in Bemba, including the first Bemba grammar in 1907 and the first Bemba translation of the New Testament in 1923. Bemba was also selected by the colonial administration as one of the four main indigenous languages (along with Lozi, Nyanja, and Tonga) to be used in education and mass media. With the extensive migration of Bemba-speaking peoples to the mining areas of the Copperbelt from late 1920s onward, the language’s range expanded further. By the late 1940s, Bemba — and specifically an urban variety known as Town Bemba — had become well-established as the lingua franca of the Copperbelt region (Spitulnik 1998a, 1998b). Extensive urban-urban migration, interethnic marriage, and the high degree of multilingualism in the country have yielded a situation where over half of the national population currently speaks Bemba. While Nyanja is still the primary lingua franca of the capital city of Lusaka, Bemba is spoken widely there as well.


Until the publication of Zambian Languages: Orthography Approved by the Ministry of Education (1977), itself the culmination of efforts over a five-year period, previous attempts at orthographic reform had remained sporadic, uncoordinated, and not officially backed. Among the orthographic rules now officially approved for Bemba, the most notable include: (a) the use of Roman characters (as shown in the charts below); (b) the symbolization of long vowels with doubled vowel graphemes; (c) the non-symbolization of tone, despite its semantic functions; and (d) the adoption of a conjunctive mode of spelling nouns, verbs, adjectives and other grammatical forms which represents them with their bound affixes (e.g. ífyakulya ‘foodstuffs’, comprised of ifi-a-ku-lya ‘things-of-to-eat’).

With respect to consonants, the alveopalatal voiceless affricate [tS] is written as c, except in the case of proper nouns where it is represented as ch. The voiced bilabial fricative [ß] is represented as b, and the velar nasal [ng’] as ng’, except before [k] and [g] when n is used, as in íng’andá ‘house’, nkaya ‘I shall go (near future)’ and íngála ‘finger nails’. [S] is represented orthographically as s or sh, and [ñ] is represented as ny.

Basic Phonology


Front  (unrounded) Central  (unrounded) Back  (rounded)
High i    ii u    uu
Mid e    ee o    oo
Low a    aa

There is a contrastive semantic distinction between short and long vowels (the doubling of vowels represents vowel length):

ukú-pámá ‘to be brave’ ukú-páámá ‘to hide’
ukú-shíká ‘to be deep’ ukú-shííká ‘to bury’
ukú-sélá ‘to move’ ukú-séélá ‘to dangle’

Long vowels may also result from the fusion of two vowels across morpheme boundaries. For example, umwééní ‘stranger, guest’ is derived from umu– + –eni (class 1 singular + stem), and its plural abééní ‘strangers, guests’ from aba– + –eni (class 2 plural prefix + stem).

Outcomes of Vowel Fusion


followed by: i e a o u
i ii yee yaa yoo yuu
e ee ee yaa yoo yoo
a ee ee aa oo oo
o wee wee waa oo oo
u wii wee waa oo uu




Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Alveopalatal Palatal Velar
  Voiceless p t k
  Voiced (b) (d) g
  Voiceless f s (S)
  Voiced ß
  Voiceless tS
  Voiced dZ
Nasals m n ñ ng’
Laterals l
  (semivowels) w y

The sounds [b], [d], and [S] (represented above in parentheses) are allophones of the phonemes /p/, /l/, and /s/ respectively. The consonant [b] occurs only when preceded by the homorganic nasal [m] as in mbwééle ‘should I return?’ (derived from N– (1st pers. sg.), –bwel– (verb root), –e (Subjunctive); where N– becomes m– in homorganic harmony with the following b). The consonant [d] occurs only when preceded by the homorganic nasal [n], as in ndééyá ‘I shall go’ (derived from N– (1st pers. sg.), –lee– (tense/aspect), –ya (verb root)). The alveopalatal [S] occurs before [i]. In addition, the consonants [dZ] and [g] never occur word initially or between vowels; they are always preceded by a homorganic nasal in nasal clusters represented orthographically as nj and ng (e.g. njebá ‘tell me’ and ngupá ‘marry me’).


Bemba is a tone language, with two basic tones, high (H) and low (L). H is marked with an acute accent while L is unmarked. As with most other Bantu languages, tone (a kind of musical pitch at the syllabic level) can be phonemic and is an important functional marker in Bemba, signaling semantic distinctions between words.

ímbá ‘sing!’ imbá ‘dig!’
ulúpwá ‘family’ úlupwá ‘eggplant’

Tonal contrasts also exist at the grammatical level, e.g. in signaling different tenses:

bááfíkílé ‘they arrived (yesterday)’
bááfikílé ‘they (had) arrived (a long time ago)’

In actual speech, tonal patterns are more complex than these examples suggest as they interact with other morpho-syntactic, morpho-phonological, and prosodic processes. For example consider these two sentences:

Tuléélyá buléétí ‘We are eating bread’
Tuléelyá nshi? ‘What shall we eat?’

In the first sentence, the tense/aspect marker –lee– carries a high tone, and in the second sentence it has a falling tone (H followed by L). Moreover, a high tone can become a low tone at the end of a declarative sentence.

Syllable Structure

As with many other Bantu languages, syllables in Bemba are characteristically open and are of four main types: V, CV, NCV, and NCGV (where V = vowel (long or short), C = consonant, N = nasal, G = glide (w or y)). These types are illustrated by isá (i-sa) ‘come!’, somá (so-ma) ‘read!’, yambá (ya-mba) ‘begin!’ and ímpwa (i-mpwa) ‘eggplants’.

Basic Morphology

Bemba, like most Bantu languages, has a very elaborate noun class system which involves pluralization patterns, agreement marking, and patterns of pronominal reference. There are 20 different classes in Bemba: 15 basic classes, 2 subclasses, and 3 locative classes. Each noun class is indicated by a class prefix (typically VCV-, VC-, or V-) and the co-occurring agreement markers on adjectives, numerals and verbs.

umú-ntú ú-mó umú-sumá á-áfíká ‘one good person has just arrived’
person one good he/she just arrive


abá-ntú -tátú abá-sumá -áfíká ‘three good people have just arrived’
people three good (they) just arrive


The noun consists of a class prefix and a stem: umú-ntú ‘person’ (Class 1), abá-ntú ‘people’ (Class 2). Noun classes have some semantic content, and there are regular patterns of singular/plural pairing and non-count classes. Class 1/2 nouns denote human beings; Class 3/4 nouns tend to be animate, agentive, or plant-like (úmu-tí ‘tree’, ími-tí ‘trees’); and Class 9/10 nouns represent wild animals (ín-kalamo ‘lion’, ín-kalamo ‘lions’). Things that occur in pairs or multiples are denoted by Class 5/6 nouns (i-lúbá ‘flower’, amá-lúbá ‘flowers’); nouns for long objects are in Class 11/10 (úlu-séngó ‘horn’, ín-sengo ‘horns’); and diminutives are in Class 12/13 (aká-ntú ‘small thing’, utú-ntú ‘small things’). Class 7/8 is the general class for inanimate nouns (icí-ntú ‘thing’, ifí-ntú ‘things’) and also augmentatives; abstract nouns occur in Class 14 (ubú-ntú ‘humanity’); and verbal infinitives occur in Class 15 (úku-lyá ‘eating, to eat’).

Some class prefixes have a derivational semantic function; they either replace the basic class prefix or occur as a secondary prefix on the noun form. The locative class prefixes function in an analogous manner.  Here are some examples:

úmu-tí    ‘tree’ (Class 3)
áka-tí    ‘medicine’ (Class 12)
aká-mu-tí    ‘a bit of medicine’; ‘little tree’ (Class 12)
icí-mu-ti    ‘stick’, ‘pole’, ‘big tree’ (Class 7)
pá-ci-mu-tí    ‘on the pole’, ‘on the big tree’ (Class 16)

íng’-ng’andá    ‘house’ (Class 9)
kú-ng’andá    ‘to/from the house’, ‘at home’ (Class 17)
mú-ng’andá     ‘in the house’ (Class 18)

The Bemba verb has the following basic structure:

Subject Marker + Tense/Aspect/Mood Marker + Object Marker + Verb Root + Extension + Final Vowel + Suffixes

The only obligatory morphemes are the subject marker (except in imperatives), the root, and the final vowel. The final vowel (indicated as FV) marks tense and/or mood, and sometimes co-varies with the preceding tense marker. Some past tense forms are represented by –ile or a modified root instead of a single FV. Bemba distinguishes numerous different tenses on the verb form, including: Today Past, Recent Past, Remote Past, Present, Today Future, Later Future.

n-ací-cí-sáng-a1sg-PASTtd-it(7)-find-FV ‘I found it (today)'(‘it = Class 7; e.g. icípé ‘basket’)
n-léé-cí-sáng-a1sg-PROG/FUTtd-it(7)-find-FV ‘I am finding/looking for it”I will find it (today)’
n-aalíí-cí-sáng-ile1sg-PASTrm-it(7)-find-PASTrm ‘I found it (a long time ago)’


Basic Syntax

Bemba is an SVO language. The situation is more complex, however, because verb forms themselves must be marked for the subject and may be marked for the object. There is no case marking on nouns. Objects can be pre-posed for emphasis, in which case an object marker (which would be absent in an SVO sentence) co-occurs on the verb form.

Chanda, u-ací-sáng-a             icúúní kwíì ?
Chanda 2sg-PASTtd-find-FV bird    where
‘Chanda, where did you find the bird (today)?’


Verbal extensions have syntactic functions (e.g. indicating a relation to an indirect object) and derivational semantic functions, as in these illustrations of the applicative, intensive, and passive extensions:

a-Ø-lím-a                  ifyúmbú
3sg-HAB-farm-FV  sweet potatoes
‘he/she grows sweet potatoes’
a-Ø-lím-in-a                          ábaaná     ifyúmbú
3sg-HAB-farm-APPL-FV    children    sweet potatoes
‘he/she grows sweet potatoes for the children’
‘he/she (always) farms a lot’
‘it will be farmed/cultivated’


Negative sentences are usually formed with the prefix ta-. The infix –shi– marks the negative when the subject marker on the verb is first person singular or when the verb is in a dependent clause.
‘I am not going there’
‘They are not going there’
n-aa-món-á    ába-shí-lee-y-á-ko
1sg-PRES-see-FV 3pl-NEG-PROG./FUTtd-go-FV-there
‘I see the ones who are not going there’


Contact with Other Languages

In the early 1800s, Portuguese and Arab traders were quite active in Bemba-speaking regions, and as a result, present day Bemba has a number of loan words from these languages. Over the past two centuries, many Swahili words have entered into Bemba through direct contact with Swahili-speaking peoples and also through Arab and missionary contact. In addition, words originally deriving from Portuguese and Arabic have entered into Bemba via loans from Swahili. Contact with English-speaking people began to intensify in the late 1880s, and since that time a very large number of English-derived words have entered Bemba. Christian evangelization, and specifically Bemba Bible translations, have also resulted in the incorporation of some Latin words into Bemba. In addition, Bemba has incorporated numerous loan words from Afrikaans and Zulu, via mine workers’ pidgins known variously as Fanagalo, Kabanga, Fanakalo, Silunguboi, Isilolo, and Chilapalapa.

Urban varieties of Bemba reflect the very dynamic language situation in Zambia, where multilingualism is high and where Bemba exists side-by-side with several other languages, most prominently English and Nyanja. Town Bemba exhibits an extremely high number of linguistic innovations and adoptions from varieties of British English and American English, which enter into the Zambian arena primarily through international business and imported media such as television programs and recorded music.

From Swahili:
umú-shikáále/abá-shikáále ‘soldier/soldiers’ (< askari or askikari < Arabic)
in-sá ‘clock; hour’ (< saa < Arabic)

From Portuguese:
in-sápátó ‘shoe/shoes’ (< sapato)
i-péélá/amá-péélá ‘guava/guavas’ (< peera)


From English:
áka-etulo/útu-etulo ‘kettle/kettles’
í-lámpi/amá-lámpi ‘lamp/lamps’
ínsóókoshi ‘socks’
shuga ‘sugar’
amá-kálashi ‘glasses’

From Afrikaans (via miners’ pidgin):
pasóópo ‘beware!’ (< pas op)
bulúlu (pl. ba-bulúlu) ‘relative, relation’ (< broer)
fúseeke ‘go away!’ (< voetsak)

From Latin:
im-mínsá ‘liturgical mass/masses’
katoolika/bakatoolika ‘Catholic/Catholics’

English loans in Town Bemba exist alongside standard Bemba equivalents (indicated in parentheses):
kaa-géélo ‘girl’ (úmu-káshána)
kaa-bébi ‘baby’ (úmu-aná)
áma-guys ‘guys’ (ába-lúméndo)
cééya ‘chair’ (íci-púná)

Common Words

man úmwaaúmé
woman úmwaanakashi
water ámeensh
sun íákasuba
three -tatu (adj. stem; abántú bátátú ‘three people’)
fish ísabi
big -kulu (adj. stem; abántú ábakulu ‘big/elderly/important people’)
long -tali (adj. stem; ísabi ílitali ‘long fish’)
small -ipi (adj. stem; ísabi íliipí ‘small fish’)
yes ééya; eendíta
no iyóó; ááwe
good -suma (adj. stem; abántú abásumá ‘good people’)
bird icúúní
dog ímbwa
tree úmutí

Example Sentences

  1. Mutálé a-0-fwáy-a               ukú-y-á       kú-ng’andá       kú-á        Chanda.
    Mutale 3sg-PRES-want-FV INF-go-FV to(17)-house 17-POSS Chanda.
    ‘Mutale desires/longs to go to Chanda’s house.’
  1. Bá-áá-ilé                                          kwíi     uyú        mulungu   u-aa-pít-íle?
    3pl-PASTrc-go[mod. stem, PASTrc] where DEM(3) week(3) 3-PASTrc-pass-PASTrc
    ‘Where did they go last week?’ [Lit. ‘the week that just passed’]
  1. Naa-tú-lee-y-a                 nóombá !
    PRES-1pl-PROG-go-FV now
    ‘Let’s go now!’

Efforts to Preserve, Protect, and Promote the Language

Bemba is one of the seven official Zambian languages (along with Kaonde, Lozi, Lunda, Luvale, Nyanja, and Tonga). These are the only Zambian languages sanctioned for use in education, mass media, and government documents. English is the official national language, and is the primary language of government, business administration, and higher education. In the Northern, Luapula, and Copperbelt Provinces, Bemba is the primary medium of instruction in Grades 1 – 3, and is taught as a subject in Grades 4 – 12. The Zambian Ministry of Education is very active in Bemba language curriculum development. Other efforts related to preserving and promoting the language include the regular publishing of religious texts; the periodic publishing of novels, poetry, and cultural commentary; and the occasional audio recording of traditional songs. There is no official Bemba language organization, but the dominance of a specific dialect (central Bemba) in educational texts, print media, and radio newscasting serves to create a national standard.

As one of Zambia’s major lingua francas (in addition to English and Nyanja), Bemba is an extremely widely spoken language across different regions of the country and across different ethnic groups. The rate of multilingualism is quite high in Zambia. Bemba is in no danger of losing speakers, but recent history has seen some changes (e.g. English-derived vocabulary) in the language due to its widespread use as an urban lingua franca. Language purists express concern over this “corruption” of Bemba and the rise of the high prestige urban variety. Others point to the bivalent status of urban and rural varieties — both are positively and negatively valued, depending on context — and argue that urban and rural varieties will continue to co-exist.

Select Bibliography

Givón, Talmy. 1969. Studies in ChiBemba and Bantu Grammar. Studies in African Linguistics, Supplement 3.

Hoch, E. 1983 [1960]. Bemba Pocket Dictionary: Bemba-English and English-Bemba. Lusaka: National Educational Company of Zambia.

Hyman, Larry M. 1995. Minimality and the Prosodic Morphology of Cibemba Imbrication. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 16(1):3-39.

Kashoki, Mubanga E. 1968. A Phonemic Analysis of Bemba. Zambian Papers, No. 3. Institute for Social Research, University of Zambia. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kashoki, Mubanga E. 1972. Town Bemba: A Sketch of Its Main Characteristics. African Social Research 13:161-86.

Kashoki, Mubanga E. 1978. The Language Situation in Zambia. In Language in Zambia, ed. Sirarpi Ohannessian and Mubanga E. Kashoki, 9-46. London: International African Institute.

Kashoki, Mubanga E. 1990. Sources and Patterns of Word Adoption in Bemba. In Language Reform: History and Future, Volume V, ed. Istvan Fodor and Claude Hagege, 31-57. Hamburg: Helmut Buske.

Kasonde, Makasa. 1985. Contribution á la Description du ChiBemba (Bantu M.42): Aperçu sur le Système verbal. Paris: Université de la Sorbonne nouvelle.

Mann, Michael. 1977. An Outline of Bemba Grammar. In Language in Zambia: Grammatical Sketches, Volume I. Lusaka: University of Zambia, Institute for African Studies.

Mann, Michael, ed. 1995. A Vocabularly of Icibemba (compiled by Malcolm Guthrie). African Languages and Cultures, Supplement 2. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Ministry of Education (Republic of Zambia). 1977. Zambian Languages: Orthography Approved by the Ministry of Education. Lusaka: NECZAM.

Oger, Louis. 1982. Learn Bemba the Easy Way. Ilondola, Chinsali, Zambia: Language Centre.

Sharman, John C. 1956. The Tabulation of Tenses in a Bantu Language (Bemba: Northern Rhodesia). Africa 26:29-46.

Spitulnik, Debra. 1987. Semantic Superstructuring and Infrastructuring: Nominal Class Struggle in ChiBemba. Studies in African Grammatical Systems, Monograph No. 4. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Spitulnik, Debra. 1988. Levels of Semantic Structuring in Bantu Noun Classification. In Current Approaches to African Linguistics, Volume 5, ed. Paul Newman and Robert D. Botne, 207-20. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris.

Spitulnik, Debra. 1998. The Language of the City: Town Bemba as Urban Hybridity. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 8(2). pdf.

Van Sambeek, J. 1955. A Bemba Grammar. London: Longmans, Green and Company.

White Fathers. 1991. White Fathers’ Bemba-English Dictionary. Ndola: Mission Press by the Society of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers). Reprint of 1954 edition by Longmans, Green and Company (London).


Additional references and resources for the Bemba language.

Click here for the original 2001 article.

How to cite this page:  Vidali, Debra Spitulnik and Mubanga E. Kashoki.  2014.  “Bemba, A Linguistic Profile.”  Bemba Online Project.  Published June 30, 2014:

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