Zulu language

Native to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland
Region KwaZulu-Natal, eastern Gauteng, eastern Free State, southern Mpumalanga
Native speakers
12 million (2011 census)[1]
L2 speakers: 16 million (2002)[2]
Latin (Zulu alphabet)
Zulu Braille
Signed Zulu
Official status
Official language in
South Africa
Regulated by Pan South African Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-1 zu
ISO 639-2 zul
ISO 639-3 zul
Glottolog zulu1248[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUT-fg incl.
varieties 99-AUT-fga to 99-AUT-fge

Proportion of the South African population that speaks Zulu at home
The Zulu Language
Person umZulu
People amaZulu
Language isiZulu
Country kwaZulu

Zulu (Zulu: isiZulu) is the language of the Zulu people, with about 10 million speakers, the vast majority (over 95%) of whom live in South Africa. Zulu is the most widely spoken home language in South Africa (24% of the population), and it is understood by over 50% of its population.[5] It became one of South Africa's 11 official languages in 1994.

According to Ethnologue,[6] it is the second most widely spoken of the Bantu languages, after Shona. Like many other Bantu languages, it is written with the Latin alphabet.

Even in English, the language is often referred to by using its native form, isiZulu.

Geographical distribution

Geographical distribution of Zulu in South Africa: density of Zulu home-language speakers.
  <1 /km²
  1–3 /km²
  3–10 /km²
  10–30 /km²
  30–100 /km²
  100–300 /km²
  300–1000 /km²
  1000–3000 /km²
  >3000 /km²

Zulu migrant populations have taken it to adjacent regions, especially Zimbabwe, where Zulu is called (Northern) Ndebele.

Xhosa, the predominant language in the Eastern Cape, is often considered mutually intelligible with Zulu.[7]

Maho (2009) lists four dialects: central KwaZulu-Natal Zulu, northern Transvaal Zulu, eastern coastal Qwabe, and western coastal Cele.[4]


The Zulu, like Xhosa and other Nguni people, have lived in South Africa for a long time. The Zulu language possesses several click sounds typical of Southern African languages. These click sounds are not found in the rest of Africa. The Nguni people have lived together with other Southern tribes like the San and Khoi.

Zulu, like most indigenous Southern African languages, was not a written language until contact with missionaries from Europe, who documented the language using the Latin script. First grammar book of the Zulu language was published in Norway in 1850 by the Norwegian missionary Hans Schreuder.[8] The first written document in Zulu was a Bible translation that appeared in 1883. In 1901, John Dube (1871–1946), a Zulu from Natal, created the Ohlange Institute, the first native educational institution in South Africa. He was also the author of Insila kaShaka, the first novel written in Zulu (1930). Another pioneering Zulu writer was Reginald Dhlomo, author of several historical novels of the 19th-century leaders of the Zulu nation: U-Dingane (1936), U-Shaka (1937), U-Mpande (1938), U-Cetshwayo (1952) and U-Dinizulu (1968). Other notable contributors to Zulu literature include Benedict Wallet Vilakazi and, more recently, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali.

The written form of Zulu was controlled by the Zulu Language Board of KwaZulu-Natal. This board has now been disbanded and superseded by the Pan South African Language Board[9] which promotes the use of all eleven official languages of South Africa.

Contemporary usage

Trilingual sign in English, Afrikaans, and Zulu in Apartheid era South Africa.

English, Dutch and later Afrikaans had been the only official languages used by all South African governments before 1994. However, in the Kwazulu bantustan the Zulu language was widely used. All education in the country at the high-school level was in English or Afrikaans. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, Zulu has been enjoying a marked revival. Zulu-language television was introduced by the SABC in the early 1980s and it broadcasts news and many shows in Zulu. Zulu radio is very popular and newspapers such as isoLezwe,[10] Ilanga[11] and UmAfrika in the Zulu language are available, mainly available in Kwazulu-Natal province and in Johannesburg. In January 2005 the first full-length feature film in Zulu, Yesterday, was nominated for an Oscar.

South African matriculation requirements no longer specify which South African language needs to be taken as a second language, and some people have made the switch to learning Zulu. However people taking Zulu at high-school level overwhelmingly take it as a first language: according to statistics, Afrikaans is still over 30 times more popular than Zulu as a second language. The mutual intelligibility of many Nguni languages has increased the likelihood of Zulu becoming the lingua franca of the eastern half of the country, although the political dominance of Xhosa-speaking people on national level militates against this. (The predominant language in the Western Cape and Northern Cape is Afrikaans – see the map below.)

In the 1994 film The Lion King, in the "Circle of Life" song, the phrases Ingonyama nengw' enamabala (English: A lion and a leopard spots), Nans' ingonyama bakithi Baba (English: Here comes a lion, Father) and Siyonqoba (English: We will conquer) were used. In some movie songs, like "This Land", the voice says Busa leli zwe bo (Rule this land) and Busa ngothando bo (Rule with love) were used too.

The song Siyahamba is a South African hymn originally written in the Zulu language that became popular in North American churches in the 1990s.

Standard vs urban Zulu

Standard Zulu as it is taught in schools, also called "deep Zulu" (isiZulu esijulile), differs in various respects from the language spoken by people living in cities (urban Zulu, isiZulu sasedolobheni). Standard Zulu tends to be purist, using derivations from Zulu words for new concepts, whereas speakers of urban Zulu use loan words abundantly, mainly from English. For example:

Standard Zulu urban Zulu English
umakhalekhukhwini icell cell/mobile phone
Ngiyezwa Ngiya-andastenda I understand

This situation has led to problems in education because standard Zulu is often not understood by young people.[12]



Zulu has a simple vowel system consisting of five vowels.

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

/e/ and /o/ are pronounced [e] and [o], respectively, if the following syllable contains an "i" or a "u" or if the vowel is word-final. They are [ɛ] and [ɔ] otherwise:

There is limited vowel length in Zulu, as a result of the contraction of certain syllables. For example, the word ithambo /íːtʰámbó/ "bone", is a contraction of an earlier ilithambo /ílítʰámbó/, which may still be used by some speakers. Likewise, uphahla /úːpʰaɬa/ "roof" is a contraction of earlier uluphahla /ulúpʰaɬa/. In addition the vowel of the penultimate syllable is allophonically lengthened phrase- or sentence-finally.


Zulu phonemes
Labial Dental/Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
central lateral
Click plain ǀ ǁ ǃ
aspirated ǀʰ ǁʰ ǃʰ
breathy ᶢǀʱ ᶢǁʱ ᶢǃʱ
nasalised ᵑǀ ᵑǁ ᵑǃ
breathy nasalised ᵑǀʱ ᵑǁʱ ᵑǃʱ
Nasal plain m n ɲ ŋ
depressor ɲ̤ ŋ̤
Stop voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
implosive ɓ ɠ
Affricate voiceless kx
Fricative voiceless f s ɬ ʃ h
voiced v z n f
Approximant plain ɬ j w
  1. The plain voiceless stops and affricates are realised phonetically as ejectives [pʼ], [tʼ], [kʼ], [tʃʼ] [kxʼ].
  2. The consonants marked with a diaeresis are depressor consonants. These are not phonetically different from their plain counterparts, and are not distinguished from them in spelling. However, they have an effect on the tone of their syllable, and are thus distinguishable as underlyingly separate phonemes.

After a nasal consonant, several changes happen to consonants:[13][14]

The use of click consonants is one of the most distinctive features of Zulu. This feature is shared with several other languages of Southern Africa, but it is very rare in other regions. There are three basic articulations of clicks in Zulu:

Each articulation covers five click consonants, with differences such as being voiced, aspirated or nasalised, for a total of 15.


Like almost all other Bantu and other African languages, Zulu is tonal. It is conventionally written without any indication of tone, but tone is distinctive in Zulu. For example, the words for "priest" and "teacher" are both spelled umfundisi, but they are pronounced with different tones.

Zulu syllables may have high, low or falling tones. However, low tone is the default, and it is overridden by neighbouring high tones; thus, it is common to describe low-tone syllables as having no inherent tone, with the two phonemic tones, high and falling, appearing on only certain syllables, rather like stress in English. The falling tone is actually a sequence of high–low, and occurs only on long vowels. Like most other Bantu languages, Zulu has word tone, and tone patterns are largely independent of the number of syllables in a word. Zulu nouns have four principal tone patterns, and verbs have two.

Zulu is also known for having depressor consonants, which lower a high tone in their syllable. For example, the verbs ukuhlala "to live" and ukudlala "to play" both have a high tone on the prefix uku, which would normally cause the following syllable to have a high tone as well. However, the tone on the dla of ukudlala is low because of the depressor consonant dl. Depressor consonants are conventionally transcribed as breathy voiced: /ɮ̤a/ or /ɮʱa/. However, it is vowel that is phonetically breathy voiced, [ɮà̤]. Indeed, vowels may be breathy voiced without a depressor consonant. The most notable difference between the slightly-implosive consonants /ɓ, ɠ/ and the plosive depressor consonants /b, ɡ/ is that effect on tone.

Zulu has tonic assimilation: high tones tend to spread to following toneless (low-tone) syllables. Specifically, a toneless syllable between a high-tone syllable and another tonic syllable assimilates to that high tone. That is, if the preceding syllable ends on a high tone and the following syllable begins with a high tone (because it is high or high–low/falling), the intermediate toneless syllable is pronounced with a high tone as well. When the preceding syllable is high but the following is toneless, the medial toneless syllable adopts a high-tone onset from the preceding syllable. That results in a phonetic falling (high–low) tone.

In syllables with depressor consonants, however, high tones are realised as rising, and falling tones as rising falling. In both cases, they do not reach as high as in non-depressed syllables. That is, depressor consonants add a low-tone onset to the inherent tone of the syllable. The possible tones on a syllable with a voiceless consonant like hla are [ɬá ɬâ ɬà], and the possible tones of a depressor-consonant syllable, like dla, are [ɮǎ̤ ɮa̤᷈ ɮà̤]. If there is no inherent tone in the syllable, a depressor consonant blocks assimilation to a preceding high tone, thus keeping the tone low.

For example, the English word 'spoon' was borrowed into Zulu as isipunu. The initial 's' was reanalyzed as the singular prefix isi-, which has a high tone. The English stress on the 'oo' vowel was interpreted as a high tone, which normally happens with English loans. The Zulu word isipunu is phonemically /ísipúnu/ but phonetically [ísípʼúːnù] (high-tone spread to si and low tone on the unmarked final syllable). The plural prefix for isi- nouns, however, is izi-, and in Zulu, z is a depressor consonant. The plural /ízipúnu/ 'spoons' is, therefore, pronounced [ízì̤pʼúːnù], with no tone assimilation. (In both cases, the high tone of pu is slightly lower than the tone of i because of tonic downdrift. The penultimate syllable is also lengthened, as is normal in Zulu.)

Another example is the pair abantwana 'children' and amadada 'ducks'. /aɓántwaːna/ is pronounced [aɓántwâːnà], with a long falling tone on the penult. The d, however, is a depressor consonant and so /amádada/ is pronounced [amádà̤ːdà̤], with a long low tone on the penultimate syllable.[15]


Zulu employs the 26 letters of the standard English alphabet. Some of the letters have different pronunciation than in English, however. Additional phonemes are written using sequences of multiple letters. Tone is not indicated.

Letter(s) Phoneme Example
a /a/
b /ɓ/ ubaba /uɓaɓa/ "my/our father"
bh /b/ ukubhala /uɠubala/ "to write"
c /ǀ/ icici /iːǀiǀi/ "earring"
ch /ǀʰ/ ukuchaza /uɠuǀʰaza/ "to fascinate/explain"
d /d/ idada /iːdada/ "duck"
dl /ɮ/ ukudla /uɠuɮa/ "to eat"
e /e/
f /f/ ifu /iːfu/ "cloud"
g /ɡ/ ugogo /uɡoɡo/ "grandmother"
gc /ᶢǀʱ/ isigcino /isiᶢǀʱino/ "end"
gq /ᶢǃʱ/ uMgqibelo /um̩ᶢǃʱiɓelo/ "Saturday"
gx /ᶢǁʱ/ ukugxoba /uɠuᶢǁʱoɓa/ "to stamp"
h /h/ ukuhamba /uɠuhamba/ "to go"
hh /f/ ihhashi /iːɦaʃi/ "horse"
hl /ɬ/ ukuhlala /uɠuɬala/ "to sit"
i /i/
j // uju /uːdʒu/ "honey"
k /k/ kumnandi /kum̩nandi/ "it is delicious"
/ɠ/ ukuza /uɠuza/ "to come"
kh /kʰ/ ikhanda /iːkʰanda/ "head"
kl /kx/ umklomelo /um̩kxomelo/ "prize"
l /ɬ/ ukulala /uɠuɬala/ "sleep"
m /m/ umama /umama/ "my/our mother"
n /ɮ/ unina /unina/ "his/her/their mother"
/ŋ/ inkomo /iŋkomo/ "cow"
/ɲ/ inja /iɲdʒa/ "dog"
nc /ᵑǀ/ incwancwa /iᵑǀwaᵑǀwa/ "sour corn meal"
ng /ŋ/ ingane /iŋɡane/ "child"
ngc /ᵑǀʱ/ ingcosi /iᵑǀʱosi/ "a bit"
ngq /ᵑǃʱ/ ingqondo /iᵑǃʱondo/ "brain"
ngx /ᵑǁʱ/ ingxenye /iᵑǁʱeɲe/ "part"
nq /ᵑǃ/ inqola /iᵑǃola/ "cart"
nx /ᵑǁ/ inxeba /iᵑǁeɓa/ "wound"
ny /ɲ/ inyoni /iɲoni/ "bird"
o /o/
p /p/ ipipi /iːpipi/ "pipe for smoking"
ph /pʰ/ ukupheka /uɠupʰeɠa/ "to cook"
q /ǃ/ iqaqa /iːǃaǃa/ "polecat"
qh /ǃʰ/ iqhude /iːǃʰude/ "rooster"
r ? iresiphi // "recipe"
s /s/ isisu /iːsisu/ "stomach"
sh /ʃ/ ishumi /iːʃumi/ "ten"
t /t/ itiye /iːtije/ "tea"
th /tʰ/ ukuthatha /uɠutʰatʰa/ "to take"
tsh // utshani /utʃani/ "grass"
u /u/
v /v/ ukuvala /uɠuvala/ "to close"
w /w/ ukuwela /uɠuwela/ "to cross"
x /ǁ/ ixoxo /iːǁoǁo/ "frog"
xh /ǁʰ/ ukuxhasa /uɠuǁʰasa/ "to support"
y /j/ uyise /ujise/ "his/her/their father"
z /z/ umzuzu /um̩zuzu/ "moment"


Main article: Zulu grammar

Here are some of the main features of Zulu:

Bonke abantu abaqatha basepulazini bayagawula.
All the strong people of the farm are felling (trees).
The various agreements that qualify the word 'abantu' (people) can be seen in effect.
Suffixes are also put into common use to show the causative or reciprocal forms of a verb stem.

Morphology of root Zulu

The root can be combined with a number of prefixes and thus create other words. For example, here is a table with a number of words constructed from the roots -Zulu and -ntu (the root for person/s, people):

Prefix -zulu -ntu
um(u) umZulu (a Zulu person) umuntu (a person)
ama, aba amaZulu (Zulu people) abantu (people)
isi isiZulu (the Zulu language) isintu (culture, heritage, mankind)
ubu ubuZulu (personification/Zulu-like tendencies) ubuntu (humanity, compassion)
kwa kwaZulu (place of the Zulu people)
i(li) izulu (the weather/sky/heaven)
pha phezulu (on top)
e ezulwini (in, at, to, from heaven)

Sample phrases and text

The following is a list of phrases that can be used when one visits a region whose primary language is Zulu:

Sawubona Hello, to one person
Sanibonani Hello, to a group of people
Unjani? / Ninjani? How are you (sing.)? / How are you (pl.)?
Ngiyaphila / Siyaphila I'm okay / We're okay
Ngiyabonga (kakhulu) Thanks (a lot)
Ngubani igama lakho? What is your name?
Igama lami ngu... My name is...
Isikhathi sithini? What's the time?
Ngingakusiza? Can I help you?
Uhlala kuphi? Where do you stay?
Uphumaphi? Where are you from?
Hamba kahle / Sala kahle Go well / Stay well, used as goodbye. The person staying says "Hamba kahle", and the person leaving says "Sala kahle". Other translations include Go gently and Walk in peace.[16]
Hambani kahle / Salani kahle Go well / Stay well, to a group of people
Eish! Wow! (No real European equivalent, used in South African English) (you could try a semi-expletive, such as oh my God or what the heck. It expresses a notion of shock and surprise)
Hhayibo No! / Stop! / No way! (used in South African English too)
Yebo Yes
Cha No
Angazi I don't know
Ukhuluma isiNgisi na? Do you speak English?
Ngisaqala ukufunda isiZulu I've just started learning Zulu
Uqonde ukuthini? What do you mean?

The following is from the preamble to the Constitution of South Africa:

Thina, bantu baseNingizimu Afrika, Siyakukhumbula ukucekelwa phansi kwamalungelo okwenzeka eminyakeni eyadlula; Sibungaza labo abahluphekela ubulungiswa nenkululeko kulo mhlaba wethu; Sihlonipha labo abasebenzela ukwakha nokuthuthukisa izwe lethu; futhi Sikholelwa ekutheni iNingizimu Afrika ingeyabo bonke abahlala kuyo, sibumbene nakuba singafani.


We, the people of South Africa, Recognize the injustices of our past; Honor those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

Zulu words in South African English

South African English has absorbed many words from the Zulu language. Others, such as the names of local animals (impala and mamba are both Zulu names) have made their way into standard English. A few examples of Zulu words used in South African English:


See also



  1. Zulu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Webb, Vic. 2002. "Language in South Africa: the role of language in national transformation, reconstruction and development." Impact: Studies in language and society, 14:78
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Zulu". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. 1 2 Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  5. Ethnologue 2005
  6. Ethnologue's Shona entry
  7. Spiegler, Sebastian; van der Spuy, Andrew; Flach, Peter A. (August 2010). "Ukwabelana - An open-source morphological Zulu corpus". Proceedings of the 23rd International Conference on Computational Linguistics. Beijing, China: Tsinghua University Press. p. 1020.
  8. Rakkenes, Øystein (2003) Himmelfolket: En Norsk Høvding i Zululand, Oslo: Cappelen Forlag, pp. 63–65
  9. pansalb.org.za
  10. isolezwe.co.za
  11. ilanganews.co.za
  12. Magagula, Constance Samukelisiwe (2009). Standard Versus Non-standard IsiZulu: A Comparative Study Between Urban and Rural Learners' Performance and Attitude. Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal.
  13. Rycroft & Ngcobo (1979) Say it in Zulu, p. 6
  14. Zulu-English dictionary, C.M. Doke & B.W. Vilakazi
  15. Rycroft, David K. 1980. "The Depression Feature in Nguni Languages and Its Interaction with Tone", Communication No. 8. Department of African Languages, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
  16. Zulu English Dictionary


Noverino Canonici, 1996, Imisindo YesiZulu: An Introduction to Zulu Phonology and Zulu Grammatical Structure, University of Natal

External links

Zulu edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Zulu
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Zulu phrasebook.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Zulu language.






Literature and culture

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