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A handbook of the Yao language online

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(Class of 1906)


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Joim E. ^tt.tscn. jr.
June 7, le^OO

RiCQARD Clay h Sons, Limited,
London & Bungay.

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Since the first edition of this work appeared in
1889, the Yao country has been the sphere of con-
siderable developments, both from a missionary as
well as from a commercial and political point of view.
The country around Blantyre is now under British
protection, ruled by a vigorous Administration in
the name of His Majesty's Government. A number
of successful and enterprising commercial establish-
ments have been for some years prosecuting their
interests, and in no small measure aiding the develop-
ment of the country and the civilization of the natives
under our rule. The Church of Scotland Mission has
been consolidating and extending its work among the
Yaos of the Shire Highlands, Zomba and Mlanji.

To the East of the Lake the Yao country has been
divided into two by the German and Portuguese
Governments, whose mutual boundary is the great
river of Yao-land, the Rovuma. The Grermans are
firmly administering the country to the North of tha^

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river. Within their sphere the Universities Mission
has for many years carijied on missionary operations
among the Yao tribes in the Masasi districts.
Portugal, on the other hand, has only within the last
year conceded rights to a commercial company which
has dispatched an expedition from tHe coast t/O Lake
Nyasa through the great Yao centres, and made
preparations for effective occupation. In their terri-
tory on the Highlands eastward of the Nyasa, the
Universities Mission has opened up several new
stations in the Yao districts, and is preparing for a
further advance among the Yao population north of
the Lujenda River and along the densely peopled
Lujenda Valley. All this points to further develop-
ments among the Yao-speaking peoples of East Central

The Yaos of British Central Africa proved themselves
at first bitterly hostile to the British Administration
on its establishment in 1891. Under native rule
their villages had been for long the centres of the
slave traffic, and in consequence their chiefs and
headmen looked with little favour on the advent of a
power that threatened their old privileges. The early
difficulties experienced by the Administration occurred
for the most part in territories under the jurisdiction
of such chiefs. These have in great measure been
overcome, and the Yao people — ^a race physically
and intellectually the most powerful in East Central
Africa — ^have given various tokens of their acceptance
of the rule of a civilized power. Numbers of the tribe

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have entered the service of the Administration as
interpreters, policemen, etc., while a large proportion
of the soldiers belonging to the native regiment have
been enrolled from that tribe.

During the past twelve years the Mission presses
at Blantyre and Domasi have produced a supply of
educational works for the use of their schools, while
the British and Foreign Bible Society has completed
their version of the New Testament in Yao. For
some years the first edition of this handbook has been
out of print, and as applications for it have been
frequent, it has been deemed advisable to re-issue it
in a new and enlarged form. The growing interest
in the country shown by the increasing developments
of the missionary and commercial enterprises, makes
the study of the native language a matter of duty
on the part of all whose occupation brings them in
contact with native life.

Almost no alterations have been found necessary
in Part I. beyond a few additional illustrations of
points in grammatical structure that seemed to require
further elucidation.

In Part II. various additions and alterations have
been made, enlarging the scope of the vocabulary,
and modifying the meaning of not- a few terms.
Several omissions, natural in a first edition of a
vocabulary of any language, have been supplied, and
the work thus rendered more complete.

Part III., the English- Yao vocabulary, is entirely
new. For the basis of it I am indebted to the Domasi

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viix PRBFACfi

Mission Press, which compiled from the first edition
of this work a vocabulary for the use of their schools.
For this valuable assistance I owe my thanks. The
addition of this Part III. will supply a want much
felt by a student of the Yao tongue.

Since the first edition of this handbook was pub-
lished, the study of African languages has been greatly
facilitated by the publication of the "Comparative
Grammar of South African Languages," by the Rev.
J. Torrend, S.J. of the Zambesi Mission. This work
has replaced, though it has in no way superseded,
Bleek's monumental work on the same subject. The
field of Bantu languages has been so vastly widened
since the latter work was produced, that the student
of Comparative Bantu Philology has now a much
larger field on which to make his observations and
elucidate the results of his researches. Father
Torrend has laid all students of Bantu languages
under a deep obligation for the aid to their linguistic
labours which his erudite researches have afforded
them. The path of any pioneer in the still unexplored
territory of Bantu language is now made compara-
tively easy, while no future work on any of these
tongues can be satisfactory without reference to
Father Torrend's Grammar.

In his classification of the Bantu languages Father
Torrend places Yao in a division by itself. Further
on he adds in a note on page 17, "that most of the
peculiar features of Yao have their counterpart in
the languages of the Chwana-Mozambique-Mpongwe

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group.** While agreeing with Father Torrend as to
the distinctive character of the Yao language pre-
venting its being classed along with any of the usually
defined groups of Bantu speech, I am inclined to
believe that its affinities will be found to lie with the
varieties of language lying to the north and north-
west of Yao-land, among the tribes of North Nyasa-
land. However, our still limited knowledge of the
languages of that region forbids any decision being
arrived at on this point,


WhUsunday 1901.

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The following pages contain the result of five years'
study of the Yao tongue. The outlines so admirably
drawn by Bishop Steere, in his ** Collections foi: a
Handbook of the Yao Language," have been filled
in, and the principal features in the structure of
the language have now been reduced to systematic

The Yao tongue was first presented to the student
in the vocabularies of Salt. He was followed by
Krapf, and afterwards by Koelle in the " Polyglot ta
Africana," who each give lists of words which they
believed to be spoken by the Yao tribe. Bleek also,
in his edition of " The Languages of Mozambique/'
gives a limited vocabulary. But, with these excep-
tions, nothing was known of the language till, in
1871, Bishop Steere increased his magnificent
linguistic gifts to Africa by the publication of the
"Collections." From the Yao boys in the mission
schools at Zanzibar he made his first acquaintance

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with their mother-tongue. Afterwards a Yao f reed-
man, who knew Swahili also, enabled him to test
and correct the knowledge he had obtained from other
sources. The result of his researches he published
in 1871.

In 1876 the mission of the Church of Scotland in
East Africa was first started at Blantyre, on the
Shir^ Hills. There the members of the mission
found themselves in the midst of a branch of the
Yao tribe which had come from the country round
Mangoche Hill, and had settled in that district,
from which they had first expelled the original
Mang'anja possessors. In 1878 the Rev. Duff Mac-
donald, B.D., was appointed head of the mission,
and before his retirement in 1881 he was enabled
to publish a selection of Scripture passages in Yao,
together with a small collection of native stories
for use in the mission schools.

These, together with Bishop Steere's work, formed
the whole literature of the subject when I joined
the staff of the mission in 1883. With the aid of
Walani, one of the mission boys, I was enabled to
make use of these materials and to extend the know-
ledge of the grammar and structure of the language.
I availed myself largely of native " literatui-e," in
the shape of legends and folk-lore stories, which
almost every native is familiar with. Many of these
I wrote down from the lips of different individuals,
and in this way enlarged my vocabulary and my
knowledge of grammatical forms and idioms. No

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better material for acquiring an insight into the
genius of any African language could be found than
these native stories. In them we see the language
as the native speaks it, and not as he adapts it to
any foreign • idioms or expressions he may have
picked up. A raw native from the " bush/' who
has never been in contact with Europeans, is by far
the best guide in the study of a native language, as
he usually speaks it in its purity. Natives who
have been under tuition are very apt to adopt the
expressions and phraseology of their teachers, and
thus often to make sad havoc of the pure idiom of
their mother-tongue.

From these sources the following pages have been
compiled. Simultaneously with their completion
there have been issued from the press of the British
and Foreign Bible Society translations of the Gospels
and the Acts of the Apostles in the Yao language.

I must acknowledge my indebtedness to Mr. John
Buchanan, head of the firm of Buchanan Brothers,
planters, Zomba, H.B.M. Acting-Consul for Nyasa,
who gave me copious additions to the vocabulary,
and at various times has made valued suggestions
regarding many points in these pages. To the
Rev. Duff Macdonald, B.D., late of Blantyre, minister
of South Dalziel parish, I also must ascribe my thanks
for his generous assistance in correcting the proof-
sheets of this work.

The compilation of this grammar and vocabulary
has been the work of intervals in the midst of the

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varied occupations of a missionary's life in Africa.
It is put forth as a contribution to the knowledge of
a linguistic field that every year is growing wider
and wider with the progress of Central African
missions. It is intended more especially as an o^id
to my fellow-workers in acquiring the language of
the people about them, and, I trust, may in this
way assist in extending the kingdom of our Blessed

Alexander Hbtherwiok.

Aberdeen, Easter 1889.

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Preface .....


Preface to First Edition .


Introditction ....

. xvii



Sounds and Sofnd-Modifications :—

1. The Alphabet


2. Accent ....


3. Elision and Coalition of Vowels .


4. Syllables ....



The Concord ....



The Substantive :—

1. Noun Classes ....


2. Possessive Relation


3. Formation of Nouns .

. 18


The Adjective:—

1. Proper Adjectives ,


2. Nouns used as Adjectives

. 24

3. Verbal Adjectives .


4. Comparison of Adjectives

. 25


Numerals ....



The Pronoun :—

1. Personal Pronouns

. 80

2. Possessive Pronouns


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3- Reflexive Pronouns


4. Demonstrative Pronouns

. 35

6. Relative Pronouns


6. Interrogative Pronouns

. 41^

7. Other Pronouns . . .


The Vekb ....

. 44

1. Voices ....


2. Indefinite Tenses

. 47

3. Imperative Mood .


4. Infinitive Mood

. 49

5. Indicative Mood .


6. Conditional Mood

. 63

7. Contingent Mood .


8. Subjunctive Mood


9. Potential Mood .


10. Participles

. 70

11. Other Verbal Forms


12. Auxiliaiy Verbs and Copula .

. 73

13. Verbal Formation .


14. Continuative Suffixes, -gay -je^ and -pe . 81

The Advekb, Preposition, Conjunct]


Interjection : —

1. Adverbs ....


2. Prepositions .

. 91

3. Conjunctions


4. Interjections .

. 93


Yao-English Vocabulary .



English-Yao Vocabulary


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The Yao tribe, whose language is described in the

following pages, inhabits the lofty tableland lying

between Lake Nyajga and the coast. The region over

which it is spoken extends from near the coast on the

east to the eastern shore of Lake Nyasa on the west,

and from the latitude of the Eovuma sources on the

north to the Lujenda river on the south. Lately,

however, a large district in the centre of this region has

been devastated by the ravages of the Magwangwara,

a powerful raiding tribe, whose home lies to the north

of the Kovuma river. Isolated villages and districts

where the language is spoken are to be found on the

western shore of Lake Nyasa and in the country lying

interior to it. About 1860 one branch of the tribe

forced its way down into the Shir6 Hills, where now

the mission stations of the Church of Scotland are

situated, while another smaller offshoot established

itsdf east of Mount Mlanji, on the trade route to the

coast at Quillimane.


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The name of the tribe appears under various forms
in the record of African discovery — Wahiau, Waio,
Hiau, Veiao, Adsawa, Adsoua, Mudsau, Mujao, Ajawa,
Achawa, Wayao. This last is the form in which the
people speak of themselves, while Ku-Yao or Kwi-Yao
is the name applied to their country, and Chi-Yao to
their language. By the name Ajawa or Achawa they
are know to the river people, and by this name we
find them alluded to in Livingstone's book on the
" Zambesi and its Tributaries."

The Wa-Yao, or, to drop the prefix, which is the
sign of personality, the Yao, are an agricultural
people. They have no cattle, and only a limited
number of sheep or goats. In their original home
there were no large rivers or lakes, hence theii*
language is poor in the nomenclature of objects of
river life. Most of the names of fishing implements
they have borrowed from the Mang'anja, their nearest
river neighbours. Their agricultural methods are of
a very rude type — ^just such as one would expect in a
people living in a country where the soil is poor, where
the cultivator has no fixity of tenure, and where large
traots of virgin soil lie ready to hand. Their habits
and customs will be found admirably described in
^* Africana," by the Rev. Duff Macdonald, B.D., and
in " The Shir^ Highlands as Mission and Colony," by
Mr. John Buchanan, planter, Zomba.

Lying within easy reach of the coast, the territory
inhabited by the Yaos has always been a favourite
huntingrground of the slave-trader. The tribe supplies

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large numbers of porters to make up the caravans
that start from the coast for the lake regions of the
continent. Thus the people have for long been, and
are still, imder the influence of Arab and Swahili
ivory and slave-traders. Hence the existence of a
wider world and of a higher civilization has long been
known to them, and many new ideas have permeated
the old native life. A few additions have been made
to their vocabulary from the Swahili language of the
coast ; but traces of this influence are to be found
only in the districts most ' frequented by the coast

The Yao has a fondness for travel. Almost every
young man has made one or more journeys to the
coast, while some are described as Iwendolwendopey
wanderers. The different branches of the tribe have
in this way been frequently brought in contact
with each other, and we find but few instances of
dialectic variety. Such as do occur lie chiefly in
accent or idiom : there are no traces of variety of
grammatical structure. Five different divisions have
been pointed out, corresponding to the different
branches of the tribe: (1) the Amakale, near the
sources of the Rovuma ; (2) the Mwembe people, near
Mataka's Town ; (3) the Masaninga, near the south
end of Nyasa ; (4) the Machinga, on Mounts Chikala
and Zomba ; (5) and the Mangoche, in the neighbour-
hood of Blantyre.

The language is classed by Gust in the southern
sub-branch of the great group of languages, to

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which the name Bantu has been applied; but the
division of this great family into its various branches
has never yet been satisfactorily accomplished, nor can
this be done till the characteristics of each language
have been more fully ascertained. Yao must be
classed in the same group to which Swahili belongs,
and has more affinity with this group than with the
great Zambesi-Nyasa group, which lie immediately
to the westward of it. Its nearest relation is the
language of a small tribe lying between the Yaos and
the Swahili, called the Makonde. Geographically
speaking, its neighbours may be described as follows : .
on the east the Swahili and Makonde ; on the north
the Magwangwara, a Zulu-speaking race ; on the west
the lake pec^le, called Mang'anja, or Wa-Nyanja;
and on the south the Makua, or Lomwe.

Several characteristics at once arrest the attention
of the student.

The excessive number of euphonic changes is at
first a source of difficulty. No harsh combinations of
consonants is allowed ; the one or the oth^ is modified
so that the articulation of the sounds may be made as
easy as possible. Of two consonants in combination
one must always be a nasal, while the nasal n causes
extensive modification in the sounds combined with
it. The result of such changes is that a peculiar
softness is given to the language, causing it to stand
in its relation to the neighbouring languages of the
Bantu group, as Italian stands to its European neigh-
bours. From the same cause, also, words are so

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modified in the process of grammatical construction
as to be almost unrecognizable by a beginner. Thus
fr(»n hulekat " to leave," we have ndesile, " I have
left 'j " where the e adone remains of all the letters in
the simple stem. Again, from hipa, " to give/' we have
cmbde^ ** he gave me " 3 where not a single letter of the
original has been retained. Such changes are at first
exceedingly puzzling to a foreigner.

In additicm to these euphonic changes, the Yao
verb presents a}so a variety of terminal modifications
that is seen in none of its neighbours of the same
language-group. Thus, in forming the' past tenses,
we have such changes as kagwUe fiom kagula^ tasUe
from toga, weni from wona, etc. The rules laid down
in the Grammar are a sufficient guide in determining
the formation of the past tenses; yet, as Bishop
Steere well remarks, " such changes are more easily
felt than described." In Part II., for the convenience
of the learner, the past tense of most of the verbs is
appended to the simple form.

Like the others of the East African languages, Yao
is exceedingly vivid in its descriptive and demonstra-
tive application. The speaker seems to look upon
every scene or incident as present to his eye, and
every successive detail is depicted as if it were pass-
ing in a show before him. Hence the use of the
demonstrative pronoun is more frequent in Yao
than in English, and hence, too, a peculiar con-
struction of the infinitive, which reduces all actions,
past or future, to the present time. A native has been

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heard to say, Aji nguo *ji ja cheni ajiji ? " Whose
cloth is this?" where the demonstrative 'ji occurs
four times, where " this " in English occurs but once.
The simple demonstrative in Y&o appears under ten
different forms, divided into three different classes,
according to the situation of the object indicated.
The pitch of the voice also modifies the distance, so
that whether present or arbsent, near or distant, the
object is distinctly presented to the listener's mind.

In the following chapters, the chief characteristics
of the language are unfolded, and the principal laws
that guide its structure are explained. As far as
possible^ examples are given of every form of con-
struction explained in the text.

Part II. contains the Yao-English vocabulary. It
is necessarily far from being complete at the present
stage of the study of the language. Words were daily
being added, and it is only after several further years
of acquaintance with the people that anything like
a complete dictionary of their language can be
attempted. The present list of words will form a

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Online LibraryAlexander HetherwickA handbook of the Yao language → online text (page 1 of 23)