Ila language

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Native toZambia
Native speakers
106,000 (2010 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
ilb – Ila
shq – Sala
Glottologilaa1246  Ila[2]
sala1266  Sala[3]

Ila (Chiila) is a language of Zambia. Maho (2009) lists Lundwe (Shukulumbwe) and Sala as distinct languages most closely related to Ila. Ila is one of the languages of the Earth included on the Voyager Golden Record.[5]



  • ch in fact varies from "k" to a "weak" version of English "ch", to a "strong" "ch" to "ty".
  • j as the voiced sound corresponding to this therefore varies "g"/English "j"/ "dy" / and "y".
  • v is reportedly like English "v", but vh "lips more rounded with a more distinct emission of breath".
  • zh is the j in French bonjour.
  • ng is the sound as in (southern British) English "finger", while ng' is as in "singer" - a similar distinction is observed in Swahili.[7]

Labio-glottal and palato-glottal fricatives[edit]

Doke (1928) described several unusual doubly articulated consonants in Ila proper, Kafue Twa and Lundwe.[8]

In Ila proper, /hˠ*, h̰ˠ*, ɦˠ*/ are "modified glottal fricatives in which the air passes through the throat with considerable friction, and is modified by being thrown against the toothless[9] ridge and inside of the upper lip, causing concomitant frication there. ... The tongue is meanwhile kept in velar vowel position as for [u] and these fricatives therefore inherently possess a u-glide, which is noticeable when they are used with any other vowel than u." The 'concomitant lip frication' is evidently something like that of [f] and [v]. Doke transcribed these sounds simply ⟨h, h̰, ɦ⟩.

Lundwe and Kafwe Twa have a palato-glottal fricative /ɦ͡ʒ/. "This sound is produced with a tongue position similar to Ila [ʒ] but with considerable voiced frication in the throat at the same time."

Tonality and stress[edit]

Tone is demonstrated by contrasting aze with high pitch on the first syllable ( = "with him") with aze with high pitch on the second syllable (= "he also").[6]

Some words and phrases[edit]

  • ing'anda - house
  • imboni - pupil of the eye
  • ipezho - brush
  • indimi - tongues
  • lemeka - honour (verb)
  • bamba - arrange
  • Bambambila - they arrange for me
  • Balanumba - they praise me
  • bobu buzani - this meat
  • Bobu mbuzani - this is meat
  • chita - to do, same is used to mean 'I have no idea'
  • chisha - to cause to do
  • katala - to be tired
  • katazha - to make tired
  • impongo - a goat [6]

Some comparisons[edit]

  • Ila: ishishi - dimness; Sotho: lefifi - darkness; Xhosa: "ubufifi" - dimness; Nyanja: chimfifi - secret;

Bemba: IMFIFI - darkness; Kisanga: mfinshi - darkness; and Bulu (Ewondo): "dibi" - darkness.

Ideophones or imitation words[edit]

Words in English such as "Splash!", "Gurgle", "Ker-putt" express ideas without the use of sentences. Smith and Dale [6] point out that this kind of expression is very common in the Ila language:

You may say Ndamuchina anshi ("I throw him down"), but it is much easier and more trenchant to say simply Ti!, and it means the same.[10]

Some examples:

  • Muntu wawa - A person falls
  • Wawa mba - falls headlong
  • Mba! - He falls headlong
  • Mbo! mbo! mbo! mbò! - (with lowered intonation on the last syllable) He falls gradually
  • Mbwa! - flopping down, as in a chair
  • Wa! wa! wa! wa!- The rain is pattering
  • Pididi! pididi! pididi! - of a tortoise, falling over and over from a great height
  • Ndamuchina anshi - I throw him down
  • Ti! - ditto
  • Te! - torn, ripped
  • Amana te! - The matter's finished
  • To-o! - So peaceful!
  • Wi! - All is calm
  • Ne-e! - All is calm
  • Tuh! - a gun going off
  • Pi! - Phew, it's hot!
  • Lu! - Yuck, it's bitter!
  • Bu-u! - Erh, it's sour!
  • Lwe! - Yum, sweet!
  • Mbi! - It's dark
  • Mbi! mbi! mbi! mbi! - It's utterly dark
  • Sekwè sekwè! - the flying of a goose
  • nachisekwe - a goose

Class prefixes[edit]

As in many other languages, Ila uses a system of noun classes. Either the system as presented by Smith and Dale [6] is simpler than that for Nyanja,[11] ChiChewa,[12] Tonga,[13] or Bemba,[14] or the authors have skated over the complexities by the use of the category "significant letter":

  • Class 1. singular: prefix: mu-; s/l. (= "significant letter" verb, adjective, etc. prefix appropriate to the class:) u-, w-
  • Class 1. plural. prefix: ba-; s/l. b-
  • Class 2. sing. prefix: mu-; s/l. u-, w-
  • Class 2. pl. prefix: mi-; s/l. i-, y-
  • Class 3. sing. prefix: i-, di-; s/l. l-, d-
  • Class 3. pl. prefix: ma-; s/l. a-
  • Class 4. sing. prefix: bu- abstract nouns; s/l. b-
  • Class 4. pl. prefix: ma-; s/l. a-
  • Class 5. sing. prefix: ku- often nouns of place; s/l. k-
  • Class 5. pl. prefix: ma-; s/l. a-
  • Class 6. sing. prefix: ka- a diminutive sense; s/l. k-
  • Class 6. pl. prefix: tu- diminutive plural; s/l. t-
  • Class 7. sing. prefix: chi- "thing" class; s/l. ch-
  • Class 7. pl. prefix: shi-; s/l. sh-
  • Class 8. sing. prefix: in-; s/l. i-, y-
  • Class 8. pl. prefix: in-; s/l. y-, sh-
  • Class 9. sing. prefix: lu-; s/l. l-
  • Class 9. pl. prefix: in-; s/l. y-, sh-
  • Class 10. sing. prefix: lu-; s/l. l-
  • Class 10. pl. prefix: ma-; s/l. a-

The locatives form a special category:

  • mu- - at rest in, motion into, motion out from;
  • ku- - position at, to, from
  • a- - rest upon, to or from off (Compare pa- prefix in Sanga, etc.[15][16])


  • Mung'anda mulashia - The inside of the house is dark.
  • Kung'anda kulashia - Around the house it is dark.
  • Ang'anda alashia - Darkness is upon the house.

The Ila verb system[edit]

The root is the part of the verb giving the primary meaning. To this can be added prefixes and suffixes: many elements can be united in this way, sometimes producing long and complex polysyllabic verb words. For example, from the root anga, "to tie", we can derive such a form as Tamuchinakubaangulwilanzhi? meaning, "Why have you still not untied them?"

Prefixes can show:

  • tense
  • subject
  • object
  • voice (exceptional)

Suffixes can show:

  • voice
  • tense (exceptional)
  • mood

Here are some of the forms of the verb kubona, "to see". (Note that there are also negative forms, e.g. ta-tu-boni, "we do not see", that there is also a subjunctive mood, a conditional mood, a jussive mood and the imperative. Many subjunctive forms end in -e.

The root of the verb is in two forms:

  • (i) simple stem: bona : code - SS
  • (ii) modified stem: bwene : code ₴
  • -SS tubona we (who) see
  • -₵ tubwene we (who) have seen
  • -A-SS twabona we saw, see, have seen
  • -A-CHI-SS twachibona we continue seeing
  • -A-YA-BU-SS twayabubona we are engaged in seeing
  • -DI-MU-KU-SS tudimukubona we are seeing
  • -CHI-SS tuchibona we continue to see
  • -LA-SS tulabona we are constantly (usually, certainly) seeing
  • -LA-YA-BU-SS tulayabubona we are being engaged in seeing
  • -LA-YA-KU-SS tulayakubona we are habitually in the act of seeing
  • -DI-₵ tudibwene we have seen
  • -CHI-₵ tuchibwene we have been seeing
  • -A-KA-SS twakabona we saw
  • -A-KA-CHI-SS twakachibona we continued seeing
  • -A-KA-YA-BU-SS twakayabubona we were engaged in seeing
  • KA-SS katubona (Notice the position of tu here) we saw
  • KA-₵ katubwene we did see
  • -A-KU-SS twakubona we were seeing
  • -A-KU-CHI-SS twakuchibona we were continuing to see
  • -A-KU-YA-BU-SS twakuyabubona we were engaged in seeing
  • -A-KU-₵ twakubwene we had seen
  • -KA-LA-SS tukalabona we shall soon see
  • -KA-LA-CHI-SS tukalachibona we shall continue seeing
  • -KA-LA-YA-BU-SS tukalayabubona we shall be engaged in seeing

The above English renderings are approximate.

Certain suffixes add new dimensions of meaning to the root. Although these follow some logic, we again have to feel a way towards an adequate translation into English or any other language:

  • simple verb: bona - to see
  • relative or dative form: -ila, -ela, -ina, -ena: bonena - to see to, for somebody, and so on
  • extended relative: idila, -elela, -inina, enena: bonenena - to see to, for somebody, etc. ididila - to go right away
  • causative: -ya + many sound changes: chisha - to cause to do, from chita - to do
  • capable, "-able": -ika, -eka: chitika - to be do-able
  • passive: -wa: chitwa - to be done
  • middle (a kind of reflexive that acts upon oneself - compare Greek): -uka: anduka - to be in a split position, from andulwa- to be split by somebody
  • stative; in fixed constructions only: -ama: lulama - to be straight; kotama - to be bowed
  • extensive: -ula: sandula - turn over; andula - split up
  • extensive, with the sense of "keep on doing": -aula: andaula - chop up firewood
  • equivalent of English prefix "re-": -ulula: ululula - to trade something over and over again, from ula - to trade
  • or the equivalent of the English prefix "un-", also: -ulula: ambulula - to unsay, to retract
  • reflexive - a prefix this time - di- : dianga - to tie oneself, from anga - to tie; dipa - to give to each other, from pa - to give
  • reciprocal: -ana: bonana - to see each other
  • intensive: -isha: angisha - to tie tightly
  • reduplicative: ambukambuka - keep on turning aside, from ambuka - to turn aside

These can be used in composites: e.g. langidizha - to cause to look on behalf of.[6]

Oral literature[edit]

A text given by Smith and Dale,[6] Sulwe Mbwakatizha Muzovu ("How Mr. Hare managed to scare Mr. Elephant") presents what might be called a "classical fabliau", with animals talking like people, just as in the Fables of Aesop or the Brer Rabbit stories in the African Diaspora.[17] Is it fanciful to see the model for the mischievous, resourceful Brer Rabbit in the Sulwe of this story? It seems that slaves destined for the southern United States were captured and purchased in this area of Zambia.[18][19] There is at least a statistical possibility that the Brer Rabbit cycle, with its use of ideophones or sound imitations, had an origin in the Ila language.


Smith, Edwin William & Dale, Andrew Murray, The Ila-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia. Macmillan and Company, London, 1920.


  1. ^ Ila at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Sala at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Ila". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Sala". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Edwin Smith & Andrew Murray Dale, The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, 1919, reprinted by University Books Inc., New York, 1968.
  7. ^ e.g. D.V.Perrott, Teach Yourself Swahili, English Universities Press, London, 1969.
  8. ^ Didier Demolin & Cédric Patin, "Phonetics". In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Bantu Languages.
  9. ^ The Ila had the custom of knocking out the six upper central teeth of adults. The pronunciation of these sounds by children with teeth, however, is very close to that of the adults.
  10. ^ Smith & Dale, volume 2, page 293.
  11. ^ Thomas Price, The Elements of Nyanja for English-Speaking Students, Church of Scotland Mission, Blantyre (Malawi), 1959.
  12. ^ ChiChewa Intensive Language Course, Language Centre, Lilongwe, 1969
  13. ^ C.R.Hopwood, A Practical Introduction to ChiTonga, Zambia Educational Publishing House, Lusaka, 1940, 1992.
  14. ^ Grammar notes in Rev. E. Hoch, Hippocrene Concise Dictionary: Bemba: Bemba - English, English - Bemba, Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 1998.
  15. ^ Mukanda wa Leza (The Bible in KiSanga/Sanga, southern Congo D.R.), Trintarian Bible Society, London SW19, 1991.
  16. ^ Lyndon Harries, A Grammar of Mwera Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1950.
  17. ^ Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus, or , Mr. Fox, Mr. Rabbit, and Mr. Terrapin, George Routledge, London, circa 1888.
  18. ^ Smith & Dale, volume 1, page 39.
  19. ^ Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave trade 1440-1870, Picador, London, 1997. page 706: "From...Ambriz and Benguela...500,000 slaves were probably shipped during the...era 1800-1830;...and...over 600,000 may have been shipped after 1830..."

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