The Zulu is a member of the Niger-Congo language family. The Zulu language used to be solely an oral language until contact came from European Christian missionaries in the 19th century. When they arrived, they documented the language and grammar using the Latin alphabet in a phonetic recording. This essentially means that they wrote the language down as they heard it, often not considering various inflections and tones, but these books became the basis for the evolution of the written language of Zulu.
The first book to cover the subject of grammar in the Zulu language was published in 1850 by a Norwegian missionary, but the first document in Zulu itself was a translated Bible. This was published in 1883, with the first novel written in the Zulu language written by John Dube in 1933. John Dube also set up the Ohlange Institute, the first centre for education in South Africa.
The Zulu language is spoken almost exclusively in the country of South Africa, with over 95% of its speakers living in this country. This amounts to around 10 million speakers, and makes Zulu the most popular spoken home language in South Africa. Around 25% of the people of South Africa speak the Zulu language as their first language, and it is understood by well over half of the total population here. The Xhosa language is one of South Africa’s eleven official languages, and has been since 1994.
While the Zulu language is indeed mostly spoken in South Africa, it is also spoken as a minority language in several other countries such as Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Zulu people that have migrated to the Zimbabwe area now have their language referred to as Ndebele by the Zimbabwean people. The Zulu language also has a high intelligibility rate with the Xhosa language, and the two are often casually used interchangeably in certain areas.
As with many Bantu languages, the Zulu language is a tonal language, though is also features click consonants. Click consonants are clicking noises made with the tongue on the roof of the mouth. In the English language, this noise is conveyed in literature with the word “tut”, while in American English it is a “tsk!” It is also the noise that is commonly associated in Western society when spurring a horse on.
These days, the language is monitored by the Pan South African Language Board, which is not just concerned with keeping the Zulu language ongoing, but the other ten official language of South Africa as well. The Standard Zulu that is taught in schools is also referred to as “deep Zulu”, as it uses many older Zulu words and phrases, and is altogether a purer form of the language than many of the dialects that are used in common speech.
An interesting aspect to the Zulu language is that it relies heavily on tone to convey meaning, but when the language itself is written down; often no tones are conveyed in the writing. This means that the speaker must have a good understanding of spoken Zulu before being able to read the Zulu language fluently, which is often the opposite case.
Why Learn The Zulu Language?
The Zulu language has the most native speakers across the South African region, though unlike the language of Xhosa, for example, they live almost exclusively in the South African area. If the South African area is the one that you would live to travel to, then you will find the Zulu language invaluable. The Zulu ethnic group is also the largest South African ethnic group.
The country of South Africa is comprised of nine provinces, and there is much cultural diversity to be found in these different areas. There are a lot of different tribes and ethnic minorities that still live in largely rural areas who keep their own traditions alive, as well as embracing more modern achievements such as the wide variety of literature and cinema that has been produced. South Africa is also famous for its wine and cuisine, and has many fine vineyards. Learning the Zulu language will be considered a mark of respect should you ever wish to travel or work in this country.