Zulu is the native language of the Zulu people who, with an estimated 9 million members, are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. The history of the Zulu people and language is highlighted by a number of exciting points, including the reign of the infamous Zulu leader Shaka.
Classification of the Zulu Language
The Zulu language is classified as a member of the Southeastern or Nguni group of the Bantu family of languages, part of the Benue-Congo subfamily of the Niger-Congo language family.
Of the approximately 500 languages within the Bantu language group, Zulu is most closely related to other Nguni languages, including Xhosa and Ndebele. In fact, Zulu and Xhosa are so closely related that most linguists consider them to be dialects of a single language. Xhosa and Zulu language speakers, however, consider the languages to be autonomous.
Early History of the Zulu Language: The Bantu Migration
The term Bantu can be used to refer to the Bantu language family as well as to the shared Bantu culture. In recent decades, however, the term has increasingly been used as a means of linguistic classification. The Bantu people are thought to have originated in modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria. It is believed that they migrated southward in one of the largest human migrations in history from circa 2000 BC to 1000 AD.
The Bantu people soon divided into two language groups: Eastern and Western. The Zulu people are one of many tribal groups that descended from the Bantu people and came to develop their own language and culture. Today the term “Zulu” can refer to both Zulu-language speakers and to people of native Zulu origin.
Establishment of the Zulu Kingdom: The Reign of “Shaka Zulu”
In 1816, Shaka – also known as Chaka, Tchaka and Shaka Zulu – claimed the chieftainship of the Zulu peoples. Under his expert rule, the Zulu swiftly expanded and gained power. Shaka’s defeat of the Ndwandwe in 1817 effectively solidified the Zulu peoples’ powerful new status and officially established the Zulu Kingdom.
Shaka reigned with diplomacy when possible and with force when necessary; however, rule and order became increasingly difficult to establish as the Zulu Kingdom expanded. Realizing that they could prove to be either a valuable friend or a dangerous enemy, Shaka dealt amicably with European colonials.
Shaka’s Assassination and the Fall of the Zulu Kingdom
In 1824, Shaka permitted British settlers to establish a settlement at Port Natal (modern-day Durban), and attempted to maintain cordial relations with the British in hopes of establishing relations with Britain’s Cape Colony, the region’s other major power. By 1828, however, Britain had decided to turn away from Shaka. Soon after, Shaka’s enemies took advantage of this period of weakness.
On September 24, 1828, Shaka was assassinated in a plot orchestrated by his half-brothers, aunt, and personal attendant.
The Zulu people traditionally relied primarily on millet cultivation and cattle-raising for sustenance. With a growing colonial presence, the Zulu found themselves competing with European settlers for land and water resources. In the 19th century, a period of violent conflict ensued as a result of this friction. After Shaka’s death, the Zulu Kingdom lasted only for another 50 years before it was conquered by the British.
Missionary Influence on the Zulu Language
Early Zulu literature was greatly influenced by Christian missionaries. Thanks to this European influence, the written Zulu language utilizes a Latin-based script.
Some of the earliest examples of the written Zulu language consist of translations of Christian scripture texts that date to the mid-1800s. Another important Zulu language text to appear in the 19th century was a translation of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
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.
The modern Zulu language is spoken by an estimated 9 million people, most of them residing in the country of South Africa (Zulu is one of the country’s eleven official languages). Most of these Zulu language speakers are concentrated in the provinces of Zululand and KwaZulu/Natal. In these areas the Zulu language is widely used in daily life, as well as in the media and for formal educational purposes.
Significant numbers of Zulu language speakers also can be found in Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana and Lesotho.
Zulu Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Isizulu, Zunda
Language Family: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, S, Nguni (S.40).
Official Language of: South Africa
Spoken by Approximately 9,142,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
- Afrikaans Translation
- English Translation
- Ndebele Translation
- Sesotho Translation
- Swati Translation
- Xhosa Translation
- Zulu Translation
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