Zulu – or isiZulu as it is called by native speakers – is one of post-Apartheid South Africa’s 11 official languages. Linguistically, it is a language of the Nguni group, spoken in Southern Africa. More widely it is part of the Bantu family, which includes numerous languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. Within that family, it is the second most widely spoken after Swahili. There are around 10 million native Zulu speakers, mainly living in or originating from the Zululand region of South Africa, with a further 14 million South Africans speaking Zulu as a second language. Understood by over half of the population, it is the most widely spoken of the country’s official languages.
It is hard to put a date on when the Zulu language first emerged, as it was originally only a spoken language and is so close to those spoken by neighbouring peoples. The group of languages it belongs to has been spoken in Southern Africa for many centuries. However, the Zulu tribe emerged as a defined separate grouping during the 18th Century, becoming established as a major regional military and political power by the early 19th Century, so the assumption is that their dialect became a distinct language at or just before this time. It was Christian missionaries working in Southern Africa who first attempted to document and write down the Zulu language. For this reason, like other African languages, it is written in the Latin alphabet. The first grammar book was completed in 1850 and the first book ever to be published in Zulu – a bible translation – appeared in 1883.
The most noticeable feature of Zulu, like other Southern African languages, is the existence of click sounds. This is something distinctive to the Southern part of the continent and is very rare in other regions. Zulu has a total of fifteen click sounds – five variations of the three “basic” types of click. Needless to say, these clicks are very difficult for non-native speakers to reproduce and most have to make do with an approximation of the true click effect. Probably the most famous example of Zulu clicks can be found in Miriam Makeba’s “Click Song” . Another very complex feature are the word classes (equivalent to genders in other languages), of which Zulu has no fewer than 16!
Today, Zulu is taught as a first language in the province of KwaZulu Natal, and as a second language throughout South Africa (where students taking English or Afrikaans as a first language must also study an African language). There are numerous Zulu-language TV and radio stations in KwaZulu Natal and in major South African cities, Zulu newspapers and magazines, and many books and films now being released in the language.
Because it is a relatively modern language and was to a great extent suppressed by colonialists and later during the Apartheid era, very few Zulu words are used in standard English. The only real examples are the names of African animals – for example, impala and mamba were originally Zulu words. The situation is different in South Africa itself, where numerous Zulu words and phrases are very much part of modern South African English.
One place many of us will definitely have heard genuine Zulu is in the famous song “Circle of Life” from the film “The Lion King”. While the character names in the film are mainly derived from Swahili, with other influences from Masai, the opening lines of that iconic song are Zulu:
“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba Sithi uhhmm ingonyama
Ingonyama Siyo Nqoba
Ingonyama Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala”, which means
“Here comes a lion, father Oh yes it’s a lion
Here comes a lion, father Oh yes it’s a lion, a lion
We’re going to conquer
A lion, a lion and a leopard come to this open place”
Thank you to my wonderful husband, Ian Braisby, for this post. Ian can be found at www.iabtours.com