Vernacular phone terminology in Malawi

Generally, Malawians tend to associate technology with the foreign world. Ask the average Malawian to name examples of technology and they are likely to mention such items as a digital camera or a cell phonerather thanahoe or a charcoal stove although both sets are technological inventions.yonse boo

Not surprisingly,Malawian vernacular names for electronic gadgets are not only scarce but are also often shunned. For example, a person that visitsaphone shop and asks for “lamya yoyenda nayo”,meaning a cell phone,may easily be considered backward or even weird.

The language of phone marketing in Malawi is, however, changing the way Malawians perceive and interact with technology. For some years now,marketing departments of the country’sphone companies have been showing notable interest in the use of vernacular terms, especially Chichewa ones. Think about such words as macheza, chezani, zachangu,machawi, ntolo, yanga, kupakula,and muli bwanji.

The growing use of vernacular terms in phone technology marketing has important implications to Malawi’s socio-economic development.First and foremost,itdemonstrates the richness of Malawian vernaculars as media for communicating important technological concepts and ideas which tend to help improve the livelihood of society and communities around the world.

The trend also haspotential to enhance the visibility of certain taken-for-grantedcultural attributes of Malawians as language is a form of cultural identity.For example, zachanguand machawi imply that Malawians, or at least a section of them, consider time as a precious resource while muli bwanji, chezani and macheza highlight friendliness as an important cultural attribute of Malawianness.

Thus, the trend is also acreative approach to overcoming linguistic barriers that tend to slow down or even prevent technology transfer in society. There is no way a people can easily adopt or adapt a technological invention into their culture when they do not even have appropriate vocabulary for naming the invention. It is in this regard that translations of the term bundle such asphukusi and ntolo, may be argued to be more user-friendly to Chichewa speaking cell phone users than is the direct English borrowing,bandulo.

Last but not least, the fact that phone companies are using vernacular terms to conduct multi-million kwacha marketing campaigns demonstrates the confidence and pride which they have in the vernaculars and cultures in question. This is a positive attitude which needs to be encouraged because it has potential to encourage Malawians develop or renewtheir interest in the country’svernaculars and cultures.

The increased use ofChichewa terms may, for example, encourage pupils to perceive Chichewa as important school subject that may help them pick careers in the technological world.One may also rightly claim that a good section ofgrown-up Chichewa speakersdiscovered the term Machawionlyrecently through phone marketing,yet the word may beas old as Chichewa language itself. Similarly, Malawian children growing up in homes andattending schools which prohibit the use of vernacularto enhance learners’ mastery of English may be thankingphone marketersfor the wordkupakulaafter years of seeing chipandebeing used for serving nsima in their home.

It has to be pointed out that this is not the first time phone companies are using vernacular terms to market their products in Malawi. Not long after cell phones were introduced in the country,fish names such as Sanjika, Chambo, and Kampango were used to market cell-phone services.

The difference however, is that in those days vernacular use wasminimaland probably less creativity because of lack of competition for customers. Thus,now that the environment seems to encourage competition,phone companies may do well to intensify their creative use of vernaculars in their marketing campaigns to benefit the nation linguistically and culturally even more.

Malawi’s phone companies, however, need to guard against compromising linguistic standards as evidenced in some translations of automated voice phone customer service in the country.For example, it is incorrect to translate the English instruction,“please enter your pin number” as “Chonde lowetsani nambala yanu yachinsinsi. In standardChichewa, the word,chonde,is used for advising, or pleading with someone as opposed to instructing them.

  • Sydney F. Kankuzi is a Lecturer in Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. E-mail: [email protected]
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James P. Namanja

This would have been the line of thinking. We lack patriotism. Thanks Doc. for the article.

Munthu Wankulu

We really need to be proud of our culture and language.
Nice artical Dr Kamkuzi.

maganizo anga

izi anthu azingopusa nazobe, aMalawi ambiri akakumana ndi anthu ogwiritsa ntchito English amasowa poyambila, especially those who go to other countries in search of greener pastures. anangozolowera eg “mchere,”, who will understand you then? use English patali patali kuti omwe sanapite kusukulu aphunzilire momwemo, hayi mani.
I met a good looking guy from Malawi at hospital yesterday, couldn’t understand what the doc was saying to him, not a word. ine manyazi. AMalawi tiyeni tiphunzile chonde chonde.
kugwiritsa ntchito kachizungu patali patali is a good start.


I think Mr Kankuzi has a point. The word “please” has been literally translated to “chonde.” I don’t think you need to ‘plead’ with somebody to enter a pin number when all you mean is to advise them to do so. Another example: the statement “can u please take a seat” may not literally be translated as “chonde khalani” when all you mean is “khalani”


I disagree with the last observation on the use of the word “chonde” it can equally mean ‘please’ munthu utha kunena kuti “chonde, chonde ndigaileni tambala” meaning please please I beg for a coin. Osamachita complicated Chichewa. One word can mean a lot more than one thing.


Quite educative and thought provoking! Using vernacular others are making millions with it. Congrats to our phone companies for putting our local languages in perspective with technology. Not everything local is bad. And by the way these are kind of analyses that should be coming from our universities osati ndale daily. Good show Dr!

i miss jb

izi ndiye zija amanena peter kuti kuma college mumataya nthawi ndi za zii. zimene walemba apa zili ndi phindu lanji lili lonse? anzanu ku moi university dzana alenga laptop, made in kenya kuti aliyense adziwe computer at affordable prices. google it now if you think i’m lying.

iwo ali pa nkhondo ndi al shabab koma ali ndi nthawi ya chitukuko. i pity my countrymen


Interesting article.
And, it also looks like phone marketing could be changing our de-facto “national” language. I notice that n has now replaced m in words like mthupi or mtolo or mkazi. New words have also been introduced: pompo-pompo and phwamwamwa; really strange words.
Then, again, I could be naive; but there are circumstances when using English terminology is more economical or culturally “acceptable”.


A Kankuzi pali nkhani yanji apa ?


It is very disheartening indeed . We tend to regard highly anything imported . For example today’s daily times paper on sports page number 38 a story by Lusayo Kanyika titled ” British sports scientist tips flames” the article only portrays how we regard foreign things highly the so called scientist has not even graduated or finished his BA studies at his university but was on holiday here in Malawi but look now he has been quoted in a leading malawi paper and also had audience with Malawi football association technical director and team doctors ….. …..

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