The Zulu language, referred to by native speakers as isiZulu, is the native tongue of more than 10 million Zulus worldwide, with the vast majority living in South Africa. One of South Africa’s 11 official languages, Zulu is the second most-spoken language of the 250-strong Bantu language group. Using the Latin alphabet, Zulu is especially noted for its click consonants. Here are 10 more things you didn’t know about the Zulu language.
Zulu is used as a bridge language from KwaZulu-Natal to Zimbabwe
A lingua franca, or a bridge language, is used to make communication possible between people who do not share a mother tongue. Though Zulu is the native language of just one-quarter of South Africa’s population, about half the country can understand it, along with hundreds of thousands of people in the surrounding region. Zulu is used as a lingua franca from the KwaZulu-Natal province through Zimbabwe.
Respect is a major component in Zulu
IsiZulu words reflect the high value speakers place on respect. Its vocabulary and grammar are designed to show special deference, particularly toward elders. Ancestral spirits are often invoked, and feature prominently in the language.
Zulu does not mark gender
In contrast to many other languages, there are no definite or indefinite articles in Zulu, meaning that words are not given a particular gender. Instead, nouns are classified into 15 classes that have different prefixes, often dictated by what the noun itself has to do with.
Christian missionaries adapted it to the Latin alphabet
Christian missionaries who came to South Africa in the 1800s helped record isiZulu in writing, using certain letters to represent the clicking sounds. In isiZulu, a “c” represents a dental click, a “q” is an alveolar click (such as a bottle top “pop”), and an “x” is a lateral click on the side of one’s mouth
‘Ubuntu’ is a cornerstone of the isiZulu language and culture
Ubuntu, meaning compassion or humanity, has become one of the words most representative of South African culture and is taken directly from isiZulu. The word embodies the country’s spirit of oneness and compassion between individuals for one another.
Standard Zulu is different from urban Zulu
Standard Zulu is taught in schools and focuses on a more pure concept of the language – meaning that new concepts are described using derivations from Zulu words. On the other hand, urban Zulu borrows more extensively from English, and is used more frequently by young people. For instance, the word for a cell or mobile phone in standard Zulu is “umakhalekhukhwini,” while the same word in urban Zulu is “icell.”
IsiZulu has had an enormous influence on South African English
While many isiZulu words reflect an English influence, the opposite holds true as well. Many words have found their way into South African English, such as “donga,” for ditch, “induna,” for chief or leader, and many more.
Some South African universities have made learning isiZulu mandatory
While isiZulu can be used in primary schools until second grade and studied as an elective until 10th grade, instruction in South African schools is primarily in English at higher levels of education. However, some schools including the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban have made learning isiZulu compulsory for all incoming students.
In its simplified form, isiZulu is often called Fanagalo.
In small trading towns and mining areas across South Africa, a pidginized form of isiZulu known as Fanagalo is used as a lingua franca, or bridge language. It is a rare example of a pidgin language based on an indigenous language rather than that of a colonizing power, and is thought to be spoken or understood by tens of thousands of people across sub-Saharan Africa.
IsiZulu has begun to play a prominent role in media in recent years
Since 1930, there has been growth in the number of Zulu publications, including newspapers and magazines. The South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) even has domestic TV and radio in Zulu.