Zulu Language

Zulu is the most widely spoken first language in South Africa – that of almost 24% of the total population as opposed to the 8.2% whose first language is English.



Population and Geography
A recent Pan South African Language Board survey on Language Use and Language Interaction in South Africa found that Zulu is growing faster as a home language than any of the other languages.

There are approximately 10.67 million Zulu speakers in South Africa, the majority of whom live in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. There are, however, 1.9 million Zulu speakers in Gauteng and 82 000 in Mpumalanga. Zulu is also spoken and understood in parts of Malawi, Swaziland and Mozambique.

The Zulu nation, under the leadership of King Shaka, became a powerful force in the 120s but the independent Zulu kingdom was crushed in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The British annexed Zululand in 1887 and in 1888 King Dinuzulu rose up against the magistrates and was consequently tried for treason and exiled to St Helena Island. This marked the end of the Zulu military system.

In modern times Chief Buthelezi has been the most important political figure in KwaZulu-Natal. He opposed the apartheid government’s attempts to create a Bantustan out of Zululand and formed the second Inkatha movement in 1975, thereby increasing the Zulu sense of nationhood and ensuring the support of his followers.

Further Reading
Zulu, Roger and Pat de la Harpe, Barry Leitch, Sue Derwent, Struik Publishers, 1998

Zulu Dictionaries
English-Zulu/Zulu-English, C M Doke, D M Malcolm, J M A Sikakana, B W Vilakazi, Witwatersrand University Press

Famous Zulu-Speakers
Shaka Zulu
Chief Mangosuthu “Gatsha” Buthelezi
Ladysmith Black Mambazo


Zulu Clan Names (Izibongo)
The Clan Name (isibongo)

The clan name is usually thought to be that of the founder of the clan and is also usually the surname. Some clan names are similar to those of natural phenomena, for example:

uZulu sky, heaven
uMkhize drizzle
uLuthuli dust

If you want to know someone’s clan name you can ask Ungowaphi? (literally: Where are you from?) and the person can reply NgingowakwaMkhize (literally: I am one from the place of Mkhize).

Zulu Address Names (Izithakaselo)
The Address Name (isithakazelo)

Every clan name has its isithakazelo. People are usually addressed by the isithakazelo. For example someone from the Zulu clan would be addressed Mageba! and someone from the Mzolo clan would be addressed Dlangamandla!.

Sometimes these address names are used as surnames. Thus the clan name Qwabe has the address name Gumede, which is now the surname of some members of the Qwabe clan.

Everyone will know the isithakazelo of the clans in the neighbourhood. Two people known to each other will greet each other using the isithakazelo, eg. Sanibonani Gatsheni! (when addressing someone of the Ndlovu clan) and Sanibonani Mageba! (when addressing someone from the Zulu clan).

When a stranger calls at someones kraal, he or she will always shout out the isithakazelo of that kraal, for example Eh! Gatsheni! (referring to the Ndlovu clan).

Each clan may have more than one address name, for example the Xulu clan has the address names: Donda, Gxabhashe and Makhathini.

Using address names shows politeness and respect. A Zulu person will always appreciate your use of their clan name. Married women never address their husbands by name or clan name, but always use the address name.

Here are some more surnames (izibongo) and address names (izithakazelo):


Zulu Clan Praises by Douglas Mzolo in Argyle, J & Preston Whyte, E – Social System and Tradition in South Africa. (pp. 206-221) Oxford University Press, 1978.

Isicathamiya – A Zulu Musical Form

This musical form was made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who produced the famous “Homeless” with Paul Simon.

A male-only choir is led by a main singer who also composes the songs. He stands in front and starts the song, and the group follows in perfect harmony. The choir dance rhythmically while singing – the name isicathamiya actually derives from the verb ukucathama stand or walk stealthily or on tip-toe.

Look at this original wedding song composed and sung by Khayelitsha Mambazo United, a Cape Town based isicathamiya group. Note that the words of the song are also culturally significant – traditionally a newly married woman is meant to show great respect to her new family and is often given many household tasks to perform.

Siyakubonga ntomb’ entle (We thank you beautiful lady)

Siyakubonga ntomb’ entle, sithi nguwe lo oshadayo
We thank you beautiful lady, it is you who is getting married
Sikunqwenelel’ impumelelo ngako konke okwenzayo
We wish you success in everything you do

Kodwa asish’ ukuthi zonqobile (x 2)
But we don’t say that you’ve overcome

Uyabona namhla’ (ngane yami) komunye umuzi (ngane yami) koluny’ usiko (ngane yami) zuz’phathe kahle, oh, ngane yami (x2)
You see today (my child) in a new home (my child) in a new culture (my child) you must behave well, oh my child

Uzothwal’ umgqomo (ngane yami), uyokh’ amanzi (ngane yami)
You will carry a bucket (my child) to collect water (my child)
zu’ngabanak’ abantu (ngane yami), zuz’phathe kahle (oh ngane yami)
don’t pay attention to what people say (my child), you must behave well (oh my child)

Uyabona namhla’ (ngane yam) komunye umuzi (ngane yami), koluny’ usiko (ngane yam) zuz’phathe kahle, oh, ngane yami (x3)

Uzothwal’ umgqomo, uyokh’ amanzi
zungabanak’ abantu, zuz’phathe kahle, oh ngane yami
ngane yami, ngane yami, ngane yami
oh, ngane yami!

The Zulu language is called Zulu or isizulu. Zulu has about 19 000 words and one of the most complex grammars in the world. Many Dutch and English words have been incorporated into the language.



a : as in army I : as in pink u : as in ruler
e : as in leg o : as in old


All these consonants are followed by a soft sounding
h as in hand:

p : as in plank t : as in tank
b : as in bush k : as in kite

These letters are pronounced the same way they
are in English:

v : as in vase l : as in like sh : as in ship
f : as in father y : as in yield hl : as in tenthly
m : as in map s : as in sing nhl : as in gently
n : as in nine z : as in zoo


There are many different click sounds in Zulu. You will need to practice these basic clicks:

c : pronounced as k, but with the tip of the tongue pressed against the upper front teeth.

gc : pronounced as g (as in gate) but with the tip of the tongue pressed against the top front teeth

nc : pronounced as n but with the tip of the tongue pressed against the top front teeth.

gq : pronounced as g (as in gate) but with the tongue pressed against the top of the mouth.

nq : pronounced as n but with the tongue pressed just behind the top teeth.

q : pronounced as q but followed by an h (as in hat).

x : pronounced as k, but with the tongue pressed against the side teeth.

nx : pronounced through the nose as n, but with the tongue pressed against the side teeth.


Sawubona hello
Ngiyabonga thank you
Yebo yes
Cha no
Hamba kahle go well (good bye)
Sala kahle stay well (good bye) If you are using a PC running Microsoft Windows click on this WAV sound file to hear two Zulus greeting each other. This file is 105Kbytes long.
Unjani? how are you?
Ngikona I’m fine
Wena unjani and  how are you? If you are using a UNIX based system click on this AU sound file to hear two Zulus greeting each other. This file is 76Kbytes long.