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Zulu alphabet

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Zulu alphabet

Native to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland
Region KwaZulu-Natal, eastern Gauteng, eastern Free State, southern Mpumalanga
Native speakers million  (2007)
16 million L2 speakers[2]
Language family
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
Linguist List
Guthrie code S.42[3]
Linguasphere 99-AUT-fg incl.
varieties 99-AUT-fga to 99-AUT-fge
Proportion of the South African population that speaks isiZulu at home
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Zulu (isiZulu in Zulu and South African English) 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) as well as being understood by over 50% of the population (Ethnologue 2005). It became one of South Africa's eleven official languages in 1994.

According to Ethnologue,[4] it is the second most widely spoken Bantu language after Shona. Like many other Bantu languages, it is written using the Latin alphabet.

Geographical distribution

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

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

Maho (2009) lists four dialects, central KwaZulu-Natal Zulu, northern Transvaal Zulu, eastern coastal Qwabe, and western coastal Cele.[3]


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. The first grammar book of the Zulu language was published in Norway in 1850 by the Norwegian missionary Hans Schreuder.[5] 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 isiZulu (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[6] which promotes the use of all eleven official languages of South Africa.

Contemporary usage

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,[7] Ilanga[8] 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 come to this open place), Nants ingonyama baghiti 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 repects 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
Ngiyaqonda Ngiya-understanda I understand

This situation has led to problems in education because standard Zulu is often not understood by young people.[9]



Front Central Back

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

Vowel length is not contrastive, but vowels are allophonically lengthened in the stressed (penultimate) syllable.

IPA Example (IPA) Example (Written) Meaning
/i/ [síːza̤] -siza "help"
/u/ [umúːzi̤] umuzi "homestead"
/e/ [e] [umɡiɓéːli] umgibeli "passenger"
[ɛ] [pʰɛ́ːɠa] -pheka "cook"
/o/ [o] [umaɠóːti] umakoti "bride"
[ɔ] [ɔɡɔ̤̌ːɡo̤] ogogo "grandmothers"
/a/ [dǐ̤ːda̤] -dida "puzzle"


Labial Dental/Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Glottal
central lateral
Click plain [ǀ] [ǁ] [ǃ]
aspirated [ǀʰ] [ǁʰ] [ǃʰ]
depressor [ᶢǀʱ] [ᶢǁʱ] [ᶢǃʱ]
nasal [ᵑǀ] [ᵑǁ] [ᵑǃ]
depressor nasal [ᵑǀʱ] [ᵑǁʱ] [ᵑǃʱ]
Nasal plain [m] [n] [ɲ] [ŋ]
depressor [m̤] [n̤] [ɲ̈] [ŋ̈]
Plosive plain [pʼ] [tʼ] [kʼ]
aspirated [pʰ] [tʰ] [kʰ]
depressor [b̤] [d̤] [ɡ̈]
implosive [ɓ] [ɠ]
Affricate plain [tʃʼ] [kxʼ]
depressor [dʒ̈]
Fricative plain [f] [s] [ɬ] [ʃ] [h]
depressor [v̤] [z̤] [ɮ̈] [ɦ̤]
Approximant plain [l] [j] [w]
depressor [ȷ̈] [w̤]

The consonants marked with a diaeresis are depressor consonants, which affect the tone of their syllable. (See below.)

Click consonants

One of the most distinctive features of Zulu is the use of click consonants. This feature is shared with several other languages of Southern Africa, but is almost entirely confined to this region. There are three articulations of clicks in Zulu:

  • c: dental (comparable to a sucking of teeth, as the sound one makes for 'tsk tsk')
  • q: alveolar (comparable to a bottle top 'pop')
  • x: lateral (comparable to a click one may do for a walking horse)

Each articulation covers five click consonants, with differences such as being voiced, aspirated, or nasalised, for a total of 15. The /ᶢǃʱ/ and /ᵑǃʱ/ series are depressor consonants, whereas /ǃ ǃʰ ᵑǃ/ are not. An additional series occurs in Xhosa, where clicks are used more frequently than in Zulu.

Pronounced Example (IPA) Example (Written) Meaning Notes
] [iːˈǀiːǀi] icici "earring"
[ǀʰ] [úɠuˈǀʰáːza̤] ukuchaza "to fascinate/explain"
[ᶢǀʱ] [ísiᶢǀʱǐ̤ːno] isigcino "end"
] [iᵑǀwáːᵑǀwa] incwancwa "sour corn meal"
[ᵑǀʱ] [iᵑǀʱǒ̤ːsi] iconsi "a drop of water (or anything liquid)"
] [iːǃáːǃa] iqaqa "polecat"
[ǃʰ] [iːǃʰúːde̤] iqhude "rooster"
[ᶢǃʱ] [umᶢǃʱi̤ɓɛ́ːlo] uMgqibelo "Saturday"
] [iᵑǃɔ́ːla] inqola "cart"
[ᵑǃʱ] [iᵑǃʱɔ̤̌ːndo̤] ingqondo "brain"
] [iːǁɔ́ːǁo] ixoxo "frog"
[ǁʰ] [úɠuǁʰáːsa] ukuxhasa "to support"
[ᶢǁʱ] [úɠuᶢǁʱɔ̤̌ːɓa] ukugxoba "to stamp"
] [iᵑǁɛ́ːɓa] inxeba "wound"
[ᵑǁʱ] [iᵑǁʱɛ̤̌ːɲe] ingxenye "part"

Other consonants

IPA Example (IPA) Example (Written) Meaning Notes
[m] [umáːma] umama "my/our mother" Pronounced as in English.
[n] [uníːna] unina "his/her/their mother" Pronounced as in nine in English.
[ɲ] [iɲóːni] inyoni "bird" Alveolo-palatal, not quite as in French vignette.
[ŋ] [iŋɡǎːne] ingane "child" Pronounced as in sing.
[pʼ] [iːpʼíːpʼi] ipipi "pipe for smoking" Pronounced as in speech.
[pʰ] [pʰɛ́ːɠa] -pheka "cook" Pronounced as in pin.
[tʼ] [iːtíːje] itiye "tea" Pronounced as in "step".
[tʰ] [tʰáːtʰa] -thatha "take" Pronounced somewhat as in English "top".
[kʼ] [kʼumnáːndi̤] kumnandi "it is delicious" Pronounced as in English "skill".
[kʰ] [iːˈkʰáːnda̤] ikhanda "head" Pronounced somewhat like c in "cat".
[b] [bǎ̤ːla] -bhala "write" Pronounced more or less as in English bed, but fully voiced.
[d] [iːdǎ̤ːda̤] idada "duck" Pronounced more or less as in English duck, but fully voiced.
[ɡ] [ɔɡɔ̤̌ːɡo̤] ugogo "grandmother" Pronounced somewhat like in go, but fully voiced.
[ɓ] [uɓáːɓa] ubaba "my/our father" Pronounced with implosion.
[ɠ] [uɠǔːza̤] ukuza "to come" Pronounced with implosion.
[f] [íːfu] ifu "cloud" Pronounced more or less as in English fun.
[v] [vǎ̤ːla] -vala "close" Pronounced as in English very.
[s] [iːsíːsu] isisu "stomach" Pronounced as in English say.
[z] [umzṳ̌ːzṳ] umzuzu "moment" As in English "zoo"
[ʃ] [iːʃúːmi] ishumi "ten" Pronounced as in English shall.
[h] [háːmba̤] -hamba "go" Pronounced as in English hand.
[ɦ] [iːɦǎ̤ːʃi] ihhashi "horse" Pronounced as in English ahead.
[l] [láːla] -lala "sleep" Pronounced as in English leaf.
[ɬ] [ɬáːla] -hlala "sit" Pronounced as in Welsh Llanelli.
[ɮ] [ɮǎ̤] idla "eat" Voiced form of [ɬ].
[tʃʼ] [utʃʼáːni] utshani "grass" Pronounced as the English chin.
[dʒ] [úːdʒṳ] uju "honey" Pronounced as the English jump.
[kx ~ kʟ̝̊ ~ kʟ] [umkxɔmɛ́ːlo] umklomelo "prize" Pronunciation varies by speaker.
[j] [ujíːse] uyise "his/her/their father" Pronounced as in yes in English.
[w] [wɛ́ːla] wela "cross" Pronounced as in wall in English.


Like the great majority of other Bantu and African languages, Zulu is tonal. It is conventionally written without any indication of tone, despite the fact that 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 is over-ridden by neighbouring high tones, so 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 only occurs on long vowels. Like other Bantu languages, Zulu has word tone, where tone patterns are largely independent of the number of syllables in a word. Zulu nouns have four principal tone patterns, while 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 as a result of the depressor consonant dl. The depressor consonants are conventionally transcribed as breathy voiced, in this case /ɮ̤a/ or /ɮʱa/. However, phonetically it is the vowel which is breathy voiced, [ɮà̤], and indeed vowels may be breathy voiced without a depressor consonant. The most salient difference between the slightly implosive consonants /ɓ, ɠ/ and the plosive depressor consonants /b, ɡ/ is this effect on tone.

Zulu has tonic assimilation, where 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 (whether because it's 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, then the medial toneless syllable adopts a high-tone onset from the preceding syllable, resulting 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 neither case do they 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], while 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, 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, as normally happens with English loans. Thus the Zulu word isipunu is phonemically /ísipúnu/, and 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 Zulu z is a depressor consonant. Thus the plural /ízipúnu/ 'spoons' is pronounced [ízì̤pʼúːnù], with no tone assimilation. (In both cases, the high tone of pu is slightly lower than the tone of i, due to tonic downdrift. The penultimate syllable is also lengthened, as is normal in Zulu.)

Another example are the pair of words abantwana 'children' and amadada 'ducks'. /aɓántwaːna/ is pronounced [aɓántwâːnà], with a long falling tone on the penult. D, however, is a depressor consonant, so /amádada/ is pronounced [amádà̤ːdà̤], with a long low tone on the penult.[10]


Main article: Zulu grammar

Some of the main grammatical features of Zulu are:

  • Constituent word order is subject–verb–object.
  • Morphologically, it is an agglutinative language.
  • As in other Bantu languages, Zulu nouns are classified into fifteen morphological classes (or genders), with different prefixes for singular and plural. Various parts of speech that qualify a noun must agree with the noun according to its gender. These agreements usually reflect part of the original class that it is agreeing with. An example of this is the use of the class 'aba-':
Bonke abantu abaqatha basepulazini bayagawula.
All the strong people of the farm are felling (trees).
Here, the various agreements that qualify the word 'abantu' (people) can be seen in effect.
  • Its verbal system shows a combination of temporal and aspectual categories in their finite paradigm. Typically verbs have two stems, one for Present-Indefinite and another for Perfect. Different prefixes can be attached to these verbal stems to specify subject agreement and various degrees of past or future tense. For example, in the word uyathanda ("he loves"), the Present stem of the verb is -thanda, the prefix u- expresses third-person singular subject and -ya- is a filler used in short sentences.
Suffixes are also put into common use to show the causative or reciprocal forms of a verb stem.
  • Most property words (words which are encoded as adjectives in English) are represented by things called relatives, such is the sentence umuntu ubomvu ("the person is red"), the word ubomvu (root -bomvu) behaves similarly to a verb and uses the agreement prefix u-, but there are subtle differences, for example, it does not use the prefix ya-.


The following is a list of phrases that can be used when visiting a region where the 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.)?
Ngisaphila / Sisaphila 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 – In practice, the person staying in whatever place the action is occurring says 'Hamba kahle', and the person leaving says 'Sala kahle')
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?

Sample text

(From the preamble to the South African Constitution)

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.

Common place names in Zulu

Zulu place names usually occur in their locative form, which combines what would in English be separate prepositions with the name concerned. This is usually achieved by simply replacing the i- prefix with an e- prefix (for example, 'eGoli' translates literally as 'to/at/in/from Johannesburg' when iGoli is simply Johannesburg), but changes in the name can also occur (see Durban below). The locatives are given in brackets.

  • South Africa: iNingizimu Afrika (Xhosa: uMzansi Afrika)
  • Durban: iTheku (eThekwini)
  • Johannesburg: iGoli (eGoli)
  • Cape Town: iKapa (eKapa)
  • Pretoria: iPitoli (ePitoli)
  • Pietermaritzburg: uMgungundlovu (eMgungundlovu)
  • Ladysmith: uMnambithi (eMnambithi)
  • Overseas: phesheya

The 'Zulu'/'isiZulu' debate

The Zulu language is often referred to in South African English as 'isiZulu', 'isi-' being the Zulu gender (or noun class) prefix associated with languages. For example, isiNgisi = English, isiXhosa = Xhosa, isiBhunu = Afrikaans, isiJalimane = German, etc. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that 'isi-' does not itself mean 'language'. Rather, the characteristic use of the 'isi-' noun class with languages can be compared to the use of the feminine gender in Romance languages to refer to fruits, while the masculine gender of the same word indicates the corresponding fruit tree. Hence, while in Spanish, manzana means 'apple', the masculine manzano means 'apple tree'. Thus the gender prefix 'isi-' in Zulu no more means 'language' than the gender suffix '-o' in Spanish means 'tree'.

The root word Zulu can take many other forms in Zulu, each with a different meaning. Here is a table showing how the meanings of two roots – Zulu and ntu – change according to their prefix.

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)

Some prefer to call Zulu isiZulu in English as per the Zulu name for the language.

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:

  • muti (from umuthi) – medicine
  • donga (from udonga) – ditch (udonga actually means 'wall' in Zulu)
  • indaba – conference (it means 'an item of news' in Zulu)
  • induna – chief or leader
  • shongololo (from ishongololo) – millipede
  • ubuntu – compassion/humanity.


  • Dent, G.R. and Nyembezi, C.L.S. (1959) Compact Zulu Dictionary. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter. ISBN 0-7960-0760-8
  • Dent, G.R. and Nyembezi, C.L.S. (1969) Scholar's Zulu Dictionary. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter. ISBN 0-7960-0718-7
  • Doke, C.M. (1947) Text-book of Zulu grammar. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Doke, C.M. (1953) Zulu–English Dictionary. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press. ISBN 1-86814-160-8
  • Doke, C.M. (1958) Zulu–English Vocabulary. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press. ISBN 0-85494-009-X
  • Nyembezi, C.L.S. (1957) Learn Zulu. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter. ISBN 0-7960-0237-1
  • Nyembezi, C.L.S. (1970) Learn More Zulu. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter. ISBN 0-7960-0278-9
  • Wilkes, Arnett, Teach Yourself Zulu. ISBN 0-07-143442-9

See also


  • Zulu


External links


  • Zulu With Dingani - Online beginner's course
  • University Of South Africa, free online course
  • Sifunda isiZulu!


  • Zulu Grammar with Audio!


  • Zulu–English Online Dictionary
  • Zulu–English Dictionary


  • Isolezwe
  • Ilanga
  • UmAfrika
  • Izindaba News24


  • Mozilla Thunderbird email program in Zulu
  • Project to translate Free and Open Source Software into all the official languages of South Africa including Zulu
  • PanAfrican L10n wiki page on Zulu

Literature and culture

  • KwaZulu-Natal Literary Map

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