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isiZulu, Zulu

Spoken in

Republic of South Africa , Botswana , Lesotho , Malawi , Mozambique and Swaziland
speaker 12 million
Official status
Official language in Republic of South Africa
Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2

perm ( LoC )

ISO 639-3

perm ( SIL / Ethnologue )

Proportion of isiZulu speakers in South Africa (2011)
Density of isiZulu speakers in South Africa (2011)

isiZulu or Zulu is a Bantu language and is spoken by around 12 million people, most of whom (95 percent) live in South Africa , mainly Zulu people .

isiZulu is spoken by 23.16 percent (as of 2015) of the 15-year-old population in South Africa as their mother tongue , where it has been one of the eleven official languages since the end of apartheid . It is also used in Botswana , Lesotho , Malawi , Mozambique and Swaziland . The written form of the language is determined by the Pan South African Language Board .

isiZulu is an agglutinating language with a nominal class system and is classified in the subgroup of the Nguni language family within the Bantu languages. It is closely related to isiXhosa and Siswati . Little is known about the history of the language; there are indications that isiZulu has existed as a language since the 16th century.

The first written evidence of the language comes from the 19th century, before that isiZulu was only used orally.


In isiZulu, the penultimate syllable is usually lengthened and stressed. Exceptions are the short form of the perfect tense (emphasis on the last syllable) and the past tense (emphasis on the first syllable).

The noun prefix isi- is shortened to is- if the root of the word is polysyllabic . Example: isikhathi ("time") is pronounced iskhathi , isitha ("enemy") is spoken as written.

The meaning of some words depends on the tone, i.e. on the choice of the pitch of the individual syllables. For example, sisonke means either “together” or “we are together” depending on whether the first syllable is pronounced high or low.


vocal IPA mark pronunciation example German
a a like in German amanga "(The) lies"
e e
as in Fee , if the following syllable contains an i or u ,
otherwise as ä
"hurry up"
i i like in German nini "when?"
O o
as in oven , if the following syllable contains an i or u ,
otherwise as in open
u u like in German uju "Honey"


consonant IPA mark pronunciation example German
b ɓ very soft, implosive b ubaba "Father"
bra b aspirated b ibhabha "Daredevil"
p p implosive p (as in the German p-p) ipaki "Park"
ph aspirated p uPhapha Pope
d, f, g, h, l, m, n d, f, g, h, l, m, n like in German - -
hh ɦ voiced h ihhashi "Horse"
St. ɬ ch as in me , but with the airflow passing the sides of the tongue. Alternatively, you can try to speak a ch and an l voiceless at the same time. In contrast to the Wikipedia audio sample ? / i the l is not pronounced separately in the Zulu. Audio file / audio sample isihlahla "Tree"
dl ɮ voiced St. ukudla "Eat"
j ʤ as dsh in jungle uju "Honey"
k k
at the beginning of the word stem or after n implosive k (as in the German closure k),
otherwise very soft g

"Put in" cat
kh aspirated k amakha "Perfume"

k depending on the speaker combined with
guttural ch (as in German ach ) or with
hl (see there) or with
l (as in German)
klebhula "tear"
ng ŋ , ŋg depending on the region as in singing or as in lobster ingozi "Danger"
nk ŋk as in thank you , but implosive inkosi "King"
ny ɲ like gn in champagne inyosi "Bee"
s s sharp, voiceless s like in a cup isisu "Belly"
t t implosive t utate "Favorite"
th aspirated t uthathe "Take!"
v v like German w iva "Thorns"
w w like English w woza "Come over!"
y j like German j yima "Stop!"
z z voiced s as in cream izulu "Sky", "Weather"


Click IPA mark pronunciation example German
c ǀ Place the tip of the tongue on the back of the upper incisors and pull it back quickly, creating a negative pressure. As if you wanted to admonish or reprimand someone. icici "Earring"
q ǃ Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and let it snap down without touching the floor. Sounds like a champagne cork popping. iqaqa "Polecat"
x ǁ Place your tongue against the roof of your mouth and pull one side down. As if you wanted to drive a horse. ixoxo "Frog"
ch ǀʰ aspirated c cha "No"
qh ǃʰ aspirated q isiqhoqho "Pile of stones"
xh ǁʰ aspirated x ixha "Bunch"
gc A g in front of the clicks affects the pronunciation of the following vowel, which is pronounced harshly and aspirated. isigcino "The End"
gq see under gc umgqibelo "Saturday"
gx see under gc ugxa "Heaven and Hell Game"
ngc ng ( ŋ ) and c at the same time. ingcosi "a little"
ngq ng ( ŋ ) and q simultaneously. ingqondo "Intelligence"
ngx ng ( ŋ ) and x at the same time. ingxenye "Half"



OP Object prefix
R. Verb root
SP Subject prefix
SP - non-leading subject prefix
SP P Subject prefix of the participle form
SP S Subject prefix of the subjunctive

The noun

The noun in isiZulu essentially consists of two parts, namely the prefix and the stem (the prefix can be broken down further). The nouns are divided into noun classes based on the prefix. The noun classes, in turn, are numbered to facilitate comparisons within the language family. For example For example, the nouns abafana (boys) and abangane (friends) belong to noun class 2 due to the prefix aba- , while the nouns isibongo (surname) and isihlahla (tree) belong to noun class 7 due to the prefix isi- .

Each noun class has both a well-defined grammatical and a less well-defined semantic meaning. From a grammatical point of view, the prefix determines whether the noun is singular or plural. Therefore, noun classes generally appear in pairs. So have z. B. Nouns of singular class 7 (prefix isi- ) their plural in class 8 (prefix izi- ).


Singular Plural
umu ntu (human) aba ntu (people)
u gogo (grandmother) o gogo (grandmothers)
i gama (name) ama gama (name)
in hlanzi (fish) izin hlanzi (fish)

Exceptions to this are classes 14 (prefix ubu- ) and 15 (prefix uku- ), for which there is usually no plural form (if necessary, in the case of class 14, the plural is formed via class 6; nouns of class 15 never have a plural form).

Furthermore, the noun class determines the form of other clauses related to the noun, such as verbs, adjectives, etc. These are brought into agreement (concordance) with the noun by means of prefixes that are dependent on the noun class and derived from it.


um fana om khulu (big boy)
isi hlahla esi khulu (big tree)

Semantically, there is an accumulation of certain types of nouns in certain classes. For example, first and last names are always found in class 1a, personal names derived from verbs (e.g. play → players) very often in class 1, abstract terms (e.g. beauty) in class 14, loan words e.g. E.g. from English depending on the degree of assimilation in class 9 or 5 and nouns derived from the infinitive form of verbs (essen → Essen) in class 15.

The following table gives an overview of the noun classes in isiZulu. For the sake of clarity, they are grouped in singular / plural pairs.

class Singular Plural
1/2 at (u) - 1 aba- 2 , ab- 3
1a / 2b u- O-
3/4 at (u) - 1 imi- 2
5/6 i- ama-, ame- 4
7/8 is (i) - 5 iz (i) - 5
9/10 in- iziN- 6
11/10 u- iziN- 6
14th ubu- (ama-) 7
15th uku-

1 um- becomes umu- before monosyllabic stems, e.g. B. umu ntu (human).

2 aba- and imi- become ab- and im- before stems that begin with a vowel, e.g. B. from ongameli (President).

3 abe only occurs in a few cases, e.g. B. in abeSuthu (the Sotho) or abeLungu (the whites).

4 ame- occurs only in two cases, namely the plural amehlo (eyes) from iso (eye; originally: ihlo ) and the plural ameva (thorns) from iva (thorn).

5 isi- and izi- become is- and iz- before stems that begin with a vowel, e.g. B. is andla / iz andla (hand / hands).

6 The placeholder N in the prefixes iN- and iziN- stands for an m , an n or no letter at all. H. in grades 9 and 10 there are three prefixes each (but only exactly one per word stem). Examples:

iN- = i-: imali (Geld)
iN- = im-: impela (Wahrheit)
iN- = in-: inhlanzi (Fisch)

7 Rarely, see above.

The verb

In contrast to the noun, a verb in isiZulu consists of a variable number of parts that are put together in a certain order according to certain rules. These parts are e.g. B.

  • a subject prefix that refers to the subject of the sentence
  • a tense formative that determines the tense of the verb
  • an object prefix that refers to the object of the sentence
  • the verb root that carries the actual meaning of the verb
  • a suffix that can indicate different aspects of the verb (e.g. tense, mode)

A verb always consists of at least a root and a suffix. The other parts are optional; H. their use depends on the function of the verb in the sentence.

Simple verb roots

Simple verb roots are those that do not contain expanding suffixes that change the meaning of the verb. These include B .:

-w- fall
-dl- eat
-enz- do, do
-nqamul- to break sth
-os- grill, roast
-siz- help

Extended verb roots

Expanded verb roots emerge from simple verb roots by adding expanding suffixes that change the meaning. This is illustrated using the verb root -enz- (to do, to do) and the most common extensions:

-enz- do, do
-enz on - to do sth. together
-enz ek - possible
-enz el - to do sth. for someone
-enz is - get someone to do sth
-enz iw - be made, be done

Subject prefixes

A subject prefix (SP) in isiZulu corresponds in German to a personal pronoun in the nominative. In contrast to personal pronouns, subject prefixes in isiZulu cannot stand for themselves. B. prefixed a verb. isiZulu also knows separate personal pronouns, but these are only used to emphasize the referenced person.

Example with SP si- and personal pronouns thina ( we in each case ):

Si hamba manje. We go now.
Thina si hamba manje. We go now.

There is a separate subject prefix for each noun class and each person.

leading SP
person Singular Plural
1. ngi- si-
2. u- ni-
class Singular Plural
1/2 u- ba-
1a / 2b u- ba-
3/4 u- i-
5/6 li a-
7/8 si- zi-
9/10 i- zi-
11/10 lu- zi-
14th bu-
15th ku-
non-leading SP -
person Singular Plural
1. -ng- -si-
2. -w- -n-
class Singular Plural
1/2 -ka- -ba-
1a / 2b -ka- -ba-
3/4 -w- -yi-
5/6 -li- -wa-
7/8 -si- -z-
9/10 -yi- -z-
11/10 -lu- -z-
14th -bu-
15th -k-

The non-leading subject prefixes (SP - ) are used if the SP is preceded by a prefix, such as B. in the negative of various tenses.

Object prefixes

An object prefix (OP) in isiZulu corresponds in German to a personal pronoun in the accusative or dative case (isiZulu does not formally differentiate between these two cases). Just like subject prefixes, object prefixes, in contrast to personal pronouns, cannot stand for themselves, but are placed in front of the verb root. Independent personal pronouns are only used here to put the emphasis on the person being referred to.

Example with OP -m- (him / her / her) and personal pronoun yena (him / him / her):

Ngi m bona. I see him .
Ngi m nika isipho. I am giving him a present.
Ngi m bona yena . I see him .

There is a separate object prefix for each noun class and each person.

Object prefixes
person Singular Plural
1. -ng- -si-
2. -k- -n-
class Singular Plural
1/2 -m- -ba-
1a / 2b -m- -ba-
3/4 -w- -yi-
5/6 -li- -wa-
7/8 -si- -z-
9/10 -yi- -z-
11/10 -lu- -z-
14th -bu-
15th -k-

The imperative

Education rule:

without object with object
Singular: (yi) - R - a OP - R - e
Plural: (yi) - R - ani OP - R - eni

The only exception to this is the verb root -z- (to come), whose imperative forms are woza (come!) And wozani (come!).


without object with object
Verb root Singular Plural Singular Plural
-dl- Yidla!




Yi dle (inhlanzi)!

Eat him (the fish)!

Yi dleni (inhlanzi)!

Eat him (the fish)

-enz- Yenza!




Kw enze!

Do it !

Kw enzeni!

Do it !

-siz- Siza!




M size!

Help him !

M sizeni!

Help him !

The infinitive

Education rule:

Pos .: uku - (OP) - R - a
Neg .: uku - nga - (OP) - R - i


Verb root infinitive meaning
-w- ukuwa to fall
ukungawa not to fall
-dl- ukudla (to eat
ukungadli not to eat
ukuyidla to eat him (e.g. inhlanzi, the fish)
ukungayidli not to eat him
-enz- ukwenza (to do
ukungenzi not (to) do
-os- ukosa to grill
ukungosi do not grill

Different sound changes occur here when two vowels meet. The following applies:

-nga- -ng- before vowels
uku- uk- before o
uku- ukw in front of other vowels (this occurs automatically when speaking)

Furthermore, the suffix -a never becomes -i for verb roots that end in w .

The present tense

Education rule:

Pos .: SP - (ya) - (OP) - R - a
Neg .: a - SP - - (OP) - R - i

The formative -ya- is used when

  • the verb is the last word in the sentence
  • the verb contains an object prefix and the referenced object follows the verb
  • one wants to emphasize that something is "actually" done.


Uyahamba. He goes.
Uhamba kusasa. He is leaving tomorrow.
Akahambi. He doesn't go.
Uyangisiza. He is helping me.
Ungisiza namhlanje. He's helping me today.
Akangisizi. He doesn't help me.
Usiza uyise.
Uyamsiza uyise.
He helps his father.

The participle form

Education rule:

Pos .: SP P - (OP) - R - a
Neg .: SP P - nga - (OP) - R - i

In the participle form, the subject prefixes u- , ba- and a- of classes 1, 1a, 2, 2b and 6 become e- , be- and e- . The participle form is used among other things

  • to express simultaneity
  • in subordinate clauses after certain conjunctions
  • after certain auxiliary verbs


Ukhuluma edla . He speaks while he eats .
Ngambona engasebenzi . I saw him not working .

The subjunctive

Education rule:

Pos .: SP S - (OP) - R - e
Neg .: SP S - nga - (OP) - R - i

In the subjunctive, the subject prefix u- of classes 1 and 1a becomes a- . The subjunctive is used

  • to express wishes or (polite) instructions
  • to enumerate instructions
  • after certain auxiliary verbs


Ngamtshela ahambe . I told him to go .
Woza lapha uzame futhi! Come here and try again!
Umane ahleke . He just laughs .

The perfect

The perfect describes the near past. What counts as “close” is at the discretion of the speaker. In everyday language, the perfect tense is often preferred to the past tense.

Education rule:

Pos .: SP - (OP) - R - e / ile
Neg .: a - SP - - (OP) - R - anga

The long form in -ile is used when the verb is the last word in the sentence or sub-clause, otherwise the short form in -e , with the -e emphasized.


Sihambile. We went.
Sihambe izolo. We went yesterday.
Asihambanga. We didn't go.
Asimbonanga. We didn't see him.

The tripod

A series of verbs in isiZulu denote a change of state or a process that eventually leads to a final state (so-called incohative verbs). To express that this final state has been reached, one uses the tripod, which is related to the perfect.

Education rule:

Pos .: SP - R - ile
Neg .: a - SP - - R - ile


Uyafa. He dies.
Ufile. He is dead.
Ngiyalamba. I am getting hungry.
Ngilambile. I'm hungry.
Siyabuya. We return.
Sibuyile. We are back.

It should be noted that with verb roots with certain endings the tripod is not formed with -ile . These are:

Verb root ending tripod
-al-, -el- -ele
-an, -en- -ene
-am-, -em- -eme
-ath-, -eth- -the
-as-, -es- -ese
-aw- 1 -we

1 This is an isolated case, namely the (irregular) passive -bulaw- from -bulal- .

The past tense

The past tense is used for the distant past, the past before the perfect, and as a narrative past.

Education rule:

Pos .: SP + a - (OP) - R - a
Neg .: a - SP - - (OP) - R - anga

The merging of the SP with a subsequent (long spoken) a in the positive results in the following subject prefixes for the past tense:

person Singular Plural
1. nga- sa-
2. wa- n / A-
class Singular Plural
1/2 wa- ba-
1a / 2b wa- ba-
3/4 wa- ya-
5/6 la- a-
7/8 sa- za-
9/10 ya- za-
11/10 lwa- za-
14th ba-
15th kwa-


Sahamba. We went.
Asihambanga. We didn't go.
Asimbonanga. We didn't see him.

The consecutive

Education rule:

Pos .: SP + a - (OP) - R - a
Neg .: SP + a - nga - (OP) - R - a

The consecutive serves to enumerate successive events in the past tense and differs from this only in the negative.


Wavuka wagqoka wahamba. He woke up, got dressed, and left.
Wabaleka wangabheka emuva. He ran away and didn't look back.

The future tense I.

Education rule:

Pos .: SP - zo - (OP) - (ku) - R - a
Neg .: a - SP - - to - (ku) - (OP) - R - a

The formative -zo- is used in the positive or -zu- in the negative to identify the future tense I. The form is formed by the auxiliary uku-za [also possible with the auxiliary uku-ya ] and the infinitive of the verb. So ngiza ukusiza = ngizosiza (I come to help = I will help) [resp. ngiya ukusiza = ngiyosiza I'm going to help = I'll help]. In the case of negation, the auxiliary verb is negated and connected with the following infinitive. So angizi ukusiza = angizusiza . In addition, for monosyllabic verb stems or those that start with a vowel, the verb stem is preceded by the prefix -ku- (this becomes -k- before o and -kw- before other vowels).


Ngizokuza. I will come.
Angizukuza. I will not come.
Ngizokwakha. I will build.
Angizukwakha. I will not build.
Ngizomsiza. I will help him.
Angizumsiza. I won't help him.

Other tenses

Other forms such as the past perfect, the future tense II, the progressive forms or the subjunctive forms are a bit more complicated. They are formed using the auxiliary verb -ba (to be) once or twice . In practical use they are also shortened.


  • Derek Gowlett, Khethiwe Ngwenya, Tessa Dowling: Speak Zulu With Us Beginner's Course. African Voices , Cape Town 1999, ISBN 0-620-24425-9 .
  • Derek Gowlett, Khethiwe Ngwenya, Tessa Dowling: Speak Zulu With Us Intermediate To Advanced. African Voices, Cape Town, 2001, ISBN 0-620-27725-4 .
  • George Poulos, Christian T. Msimang: A Linguistic Analysis of Zulu . Via Africa, Cape Town 1998, ISBN 0-7994-1526-X .
  • CM Doke: English-Zulu / Zulu-English Dictionary. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg 1990, ISBN 1-86814-160-8 .
  • Gilles-Maurice de Schryver et al. a .: Isichazamazwi Sesikole: isiZulu – isiNgisi / Oxford Bilingual School Dictionary: Zulu and English 2e . Oxford University Press Southern Africa, Cape Town 2015, ISBN 9780199079544 .

Web links

Commons : isiZulu  - collection of images, videos and audio files


Language and culture



Individual evidence

  1. ^ Institute of Race Relations : South Africa Survey 2017 . Johannesburg 2017, p. 74