Review by WH on 13-12-2014 of Dictionary Print

Review by WH on 13-12-2014 of Dictionary - Mtanthauziramawu: Chichewa / Chinyanja - English // English - Chichewa / Chinyanja (Hardcover)

In contrast to many other African languages the English-speaking student of Chichewa/Chinyanja is fortunate to be able to benefit from a large number of learning resources including at least four language courses, a range of textbooks, graded readers and grammars published for school children, and an array of audio/visual materials. In part this reflects the importance of the language across a wide area centred on Zambia/Malawi. In part (and the two factors are to an extent mutually reinforcing) it is the product of a long European engagement with the language which has had a tendency to privilege it over regional alternatives. Of the host of resources available, however, this bilingual dictionary stands out as the one tool genuinely indispensable to beginner and fluent practitioner alike. It is a magnificent achievement, the fruit of a collaborative effort initiated and overseen by a Dutch academic but involving a large number of native Chichewa speakers and conceived not merely as a way of opening up an African language to English speakers and vice versa but also as a contribution towards eroding the hegemony of English in regional academic and scientific discourse. Far more comprehensive than any alternative its forty thousand plus entries include slang, technical terms, loan words and grammatical markers, and are enriched by a wealth of examples as well as explanations of proverbial and idiomatic usage which might otherwise baffle the student. Many words – ‘mtima’, ‘mimba’,’nthawi’ – receive extended treatment whilst the entries under ‘fish’, ‘bird’ and the like are the occasion for marvellous extended lists of vernacular terms. The emphasis throughout is on practicality; on providing a reliable and helpful guide to everyday encounters between people, whether they take place in the workplace, the library or on the street.

A few provisos could be mentioned. Whilst celebrating the transnational reach of Chichewa/Chinyanja the work has a pronounced Malawian focus which is doubtless inevitable given its origins but which it might be desirable to do more to mitigate. The use of the same illustrative examples in both the Chichewa/Chinyanja-English and English-Chichewa/Chinyanja sections of the dictionary offers an opportunity for enlarging the depth of the book without increasing its size which will hopefully one day be exploited. The ordering of entries could be improved: the English verb ‘put’ appears after the phrasal verbs ‘put down’, ‘put in’, ‘put up’, for example. But these are mere quibbles which it feels churlish to raise for I love this book. Barely a day passes when I don’t have cause to consult it and I am immensely grateful for the thought, care and enormous amount of hard work which have gone into its creation.

This third edition of the bilingual dictionary, available through Amazon, is a handsome, large format hardcover volume which many will want to use in conjunction with the frequently updated online version to be found at This is free for limited use (unlimited access for a small fee) and is offered in conjunction with a wealth of cognate information and some very useful links. A small format edition of the dictionary has also been published recently but is distributed only in Africa. Hopefully it will be possible for the next small format edition to be distributed in Africa and Europe simultaneously.

Potential purchasers may be interested in the following review by Professor C. Martin Pauw which was published in the January 2013 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research:

“This Dictionary / Mtanthauziramawu, with over 43,000 entries, is the result of a team effort by the Dutch author (at one time seconded to teach theology in Malawi) and Malawian collaborators. It seeks to address the challenges both for newcomers having to learn a new language and for Malawians needing to recognize and reestablish the relevance of their own language in the face of the domination of foreign languages. Several editions preceded this combined third edition. The work draws from a long tradition of missionary linguistic publications - beginning with the dictionary of Johannes Rebmann in the mid-nineteenth century (see the bibliography in Appendix 2, pp. 876–81) - which helped to establish Chichewa/Chinyanja as a lingua franca in Central Africa. One such volume of missionary scholarship, the Dictionary of the Nyanja Language (1929) by Alexander Hetherwick et al., which established a linguistic benchmark, was itself based on an earlier work by David C. Scott.

The publication under review, continuing this tradition, is significant in several respects.

(1) Chichewa/Chinyanja, with over 15 million users, is arguably the most widely spoken language in Central Africa. These users include not only the vast majority of Malawians, but also people in large parts of neighboring Zambia and Mozambique, as well as many in Zimbabwe and even South Africa and further afield.
(2) By empowering its users, the language itself can be empowered to take a rightful place on the regional, continental, and international scenes.
(3) By drawing together various dialectic traditions (hence the double nomenclature), it transcends ruralism, tribalism, traditionalism, and nationalism.
(4) Thus, it can also serve to promote national unity, as well as to draw Christian believers and churches closer together.
(5) Finally, having theological students and pastors and other academics as collaborators should enhance the status of this language as an academic language and as a counter to the academic dominance of Western languages.


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