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A Beginner’s Guide to the Zulu Language

As we continue our linguistic journey across the diverse landscape of South African languages, Zulu takes centre stage, captivating us with its unique blend of history, cultural influences, and linguistic intricacies. In this exploration, we delve into the roots of Zulu, its linguistic structure, and the linguistic tapestry it weaves into the vibrant mosaic of South Africa.

A Glimpse into Zulu’s Past

Originating in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, once known as Zululand, Zulu’s roots extend back to the pre-sixteenth century migrations of the Zulu people through central Africa and along the east coast.

A pivotal moment in the language’s evolution occurred through encounters with Khoisan-speaking communities, leaving an indelible mark on Zulu vocabulary with the infusion of Khoisan words and distinctive click consonants. The linguistic journey reached a milestone in 1859 with the publication of the first Zulu grammar book, solidifying the language’s formal structure.

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In 1994, Zulu attained official language status in South Africa, a testament to its cultural significance. The 1980s witnessed a linguistic revolution as Zulu language television was introduced by the SABC, paving the way for its presence in various forms of media, including the global stage with the Oscar-nominated film “Yesterday” in 2005 and the iconic “Circle Of Life” song in “The Lion King.”

Today, the Zulu language stands not only as a means of communication but as a living testament to the vibrant history, cultural intersections, and resilient spirit of the Zulu people. As we explore the linguistic intricacies, we unveil a language that echoes the footsteps of its speakers across time and space.

Why Learn Zulu

Zulu, a Bantu language, stands second only to Shona in terms of speakers. With almost twelve million native speakers and an additional sixteen million using it as a second language, Zulu’s linguistic influence extends beyond South Africa into Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. This means that those who learn Zulu will be able to communicate with people from many different countries and cultures.

But the good news doesn’t stop there. The written form employs a Latin script (just like English!) with an alphabet of twenty-six basic letters, augmented by a few additional phonemes.

Moreover, mutual intelligibility is a hallmark of Zulu, with shared linguistic nuances with Xhosa, Ndelebele, and Swati. This linguistic kinship is evident in phrases like “What’s your name,” which resonates similarly across Zulu, Ndelebele, Xhosa, and Swati.

Zulu: Ungubani igama lakho?

Ndebele: Ungubani igama lakho?

Xhosa: Ngubani igama lakho?

Swati: Ngubani ligama lakho?

By learning Zulu, you will be able to understand other languages and dialects, expanding your social and professional possibilities.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering how hard it is to learn Zulu according to the Foreign Service Institute, Zulu is rated as a class 2 language on the difficulty scale for English speakers, promising proficiency within a mere forty-four weeks of dedicated learning.

Decoding Zulu Grammar

Here are some of the features that make the Zulu language unique:

1. Word order

The typical word order in a verb phrase is Verb-Object, just like in English. However, noun phrases are different, as adjectives, possessive pronouns, and demonstratives appear after the nouns they modify:

English: The big house

Zulu: Indlu enkulu

In this example:

“Indlu” means “house” (the noun).

“Enkulu” means “big” (the adjective modifying the noun).

Now, let’s add a possessive pronoun and a demonstrative:

English: His big house

Zulu: Indlu yakhe enkulu

In this extended example:

“Yakhe” means “his” (the possessive pronoun).

“Enkulu” still means “big.”

2. Lack of Grammatical Distinctions

English uses articles like “the” (definite) and “a” or “an” (indefinite) to specify or generalize nouns. Zulu doesn’t have these distinctions.

For example, “umuntu” means “person” without specifying whether it’s a specific person or any person. Similarly, the Zulu language lacks gender Markings. Unlike languages like French or Spanish, where nouns have grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), Zulu doesn’t assign gender to nouns. “Isikhathi” means “time” without implying any gender association, unlike Spanish where ‘time’ is masculine: EL tiempo.

3. Agglutination

In agglutinative languages, affixes (prefixes, suffixes) are added to a root word to express grammatical relationships, and each affix has a clear and distinct meaning. In Zulu, you can observe this agglutinative characteristic in the way prefixes and suffixes are added to verb roots to convey various grammatical nuances, such as tense, subject concord, and object concord.

For example:

“Ngiyakuthanda” – I love her:

“Ngi-” – First Person Singular Subject Prefix: Indicates that the subject of the sentence is “I.”

“ya-” – Present Tense Marker: Specifies the action is happening in the present.

“ku-” – Third Person Singular Object Prefix: Indicates the object of the sentence, which is “her” in this context.

“thanda” – Root (Base Form of the Verb): Means “love” in this case.

Your First Zulu Glossary: Basic Zulu Phrases

If you’ve already decided to learn Zulu (as you should) why not start with a few simple words and phrases?

Here are some basic Zulu phrases that will help you make a great impression if used correctly:


Hello – Sawubona

How are you? – Unjani?

Polite Expressions:

Thank you – Ngiyabonga

Please – Ngiyacela

Basic Introductions:

My name is… – Igama lami ngu…

What is your name? – Ngubani igama lakho?

Common Courtesies:

Excuse me – Ngiyaxolisa

I’m sorry – Ngiyaxolisa

Everyday Phrases:

Yes – Yebo

No – Cha

Goodbye – Hamba kahle

Getting Around:

Where is…? – Laphi…?

How much is this? – Kuyacela imali engaphelele?


One – Kunye

Two – Kubili

Three – Kutathu


Help! – Sithathele!

I need assistance – Ngidinga ukusiza

Feel free to practice these basic Zulu phrases as you embark on your linguistic adventure. Remember, embracing a new language is not just about words; it’s about fostering connections and understanding diverse cultures.

Learn Zulu Now

Zulu is more than just a language; it’s a gateway to the vibrant culture and history of the Zulu people. Learning Zulu allows you to connect with a rich tapestry of related languages, stories, and customs.

As one of South Africa’s official languages, Zulu opens a window to understanding one of the continent’s most dynamic and culturally diverse nations, connecting you to a global community with a rich heritage.

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So, why learn Zulu with Listen & Learn?

Here are three key reasons:

  • Engaging Lessons: Our Zulu learning experience is designed to be interactive and enjoyable. Say goodbye to monotony, and hello to lessons that resonate with you.
  • Practical Approach: We focus on phrases you can use in real-life situations. Whether you’re travelling, connecting with Zulu speakers, or simply exploring the language, our lessons are practical and purposeful.
  • Community Support: Learning is more fun when you’re not alone. Join our community of language learners, share your progress, ask questions, and celebrate the joy of language acquisition together.

Ready to embark on a linguistic adventure? Contact Listen & Learn now and get a free trial lesson taught by one of our fantastic native teachers.