IsiZulu in 2016

Welcome to the fourth of Bangula’s language blogs, exploring South Africa’s diverse range of official languages and their current state of development.

Each blog will also be released in a translated version as we hope to encourage the use of South Africa’s languages.

‘Click here for the IsiZulu version’

IsiZulu is the most common language in South Africa,  spoken by nearly 23% of the total population, or 11.6-million people. It’s the language of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulu people, who take their name from the chief who founded the royal line in the 16th century. The warrior king Shaka raised the nation to prominence in the early 19th century. The current monarch is King Goodwill Zwelithini.

A tonal language and one of the country’s four Nguni languages, isiZulu is closely related to isiXhosa. It is probably the most widely understood African language in South Africa, spoken from the Cape to Zimbabwe. The writing of Zulu was started by missionaries in what was then Natal in the 19th century, with the first Zulu translation of the bible produced in 1883.

IsiZulu is an extremely regional language, with 77.8% of its speakers to be found in KwaZulu-Natal. More than 18% of isiZulu speakers are to be found in Gauteng, the second province in which it is in the majority, with its speakers making up 19.5% of the provincial population. In Mpumalanga it is spoken by nearly a quarter of the population, who make up 7.6% of all South African isiZulu speakers. The presence of the language in the remaining six provinces is negligible.

Early Development of Zulu Literature

The Zulu language has claim to a rich body of literature, both oral and written. Traditional Zulu literature includes oral poetry such as “izibongo” praise songs. Written Zulu literature of the 19th and 20th centuries can generally be divided into two groups, one addressing issues of traditional Zulu life and the other concerning the theme of Christianity.

In the 20th century, a number of works related to Zulu history and culture appeared. Some notable examples include Magema kaMagwaza Fuze’s 1922 work “Abantu Abamnyama Lapha Bavela Ngakhona” (“Where the Black People Came From”), and Petros Lamula’s 1936 work “Isabelo sikaZulu” (“Zulu Heritage”).

Modern Zulu Literature

A significant body of more modern Zulu literature has focused on celebrating and preserving Zulu cultural heritage, notably Zulu oral traditions. Compilations of oral traditions from the time include F.L.A Ntuli’s 1939 work “Izinganekwane nezindaba ezindala” (“Oral Narratives and Ancient Traditions”) and Nyembezi’s 1958 collection of Zulu heroic poems in “Izibongo zamakhosi” (“Heroic Poems of the Chiefs”).

Modern Zulu language literature is certainly not limited to Zulu-specific themes. Zulu literature today includes fiction, poetry and drama. A number of Zulu language newspapers, magazines, radio programs and television stations also exist.

Characteristics of the Zulu Language

Zulu has a significant number of loanwords borrowed from the Afrikaans and English languages. Like Xhosa, Zulu is uniquely characterized by its use of three different types of click sounds, which most linguists believe were borrowed from nearby Khoisan languages. Another interesting characteristic of Zulu is that most of the language’s words end in a vowel.

  • Home language to: 22.7% of the population (11 587 374 people)
  • Linguistic lineage: Niger-Congo > Atlantic-Congo > Volta- Congo > Benue-Congo > Bantoid > Southern > Narrow Bantu > Central > S group > Nguni > isiZulu
  • Alternate and historical names: Zulu, Zunda
  • Dialects: Lala, Qwabe

Significant numbers of Zulu language speakers also can be found in Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana and Lesotho.

Source: Census 2011 and Ethnologue

Zwivhuya Matidza, Bangula Language Manager

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