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Number of Speakers: Approximately 8.8 million

Key Dialects: Literary Zulu and others

Geographical Center: Eastern South Africa

A total of 8.5 million people in South Africa speak Zulu; there are an additional 37,500 in Malawi; 15,000 in southern Swaziland; and 228,000 in Lesotho (Grimes 1992). The main concentrations are in Natal Province and within Natal in Kwazulu; in southeastern Transvaal; and northeastern Orange Free State. It is a "dominant language" (Grobler et al. 1990) in at least a dozen or so districts in Transvaal, and one large district in the Orange Free State. Afrikaans and English are official languages, but Zulu is considered a "national" language in the Republic of South Africa. Of all the languages spoken in Southern Africa, including English and Afrikaans it has the largest number of speakers.

Zulu is a Bantu language of the Benue-Congo subgroup in Niger-Congo within the Niger-Kordofanian family. It is a Nguni language which also includes Xhosa, Swati (Swaziland), and Ndebele (Zimbabwe and parts of the Republic of South Africa); they are closely related and are mutually intelligible. However, they are generally not considered as dialects of the same language for cultural, historical, and political reasons. For instance, Zulu and Xhosa have their own identities in the view of individual speakers of the respective languages. The Nguni languages are part a much larger related group of Southeastern Bantu languages which includes, along with the Nguni group, Sotho (Northern, Southern, and Tswana), Tsonga, Venda, and Inhambane (Chopi and Tonga). For the most part these are spoken within the Republic of South Africa; Tswana is predominantly spoken in Botswana and in the former "homeland" of Bophuthatswana; Inhambane languages are found in southern Mozambique. In turn all these languages just mentioned are related to the Shona dialect cluster, predominantly spoken in Zimbabwe. The group inclusive of all the above is also known as Narrow Bantu 'S'. This group, inclusive of all the above, is also known as Narrow Bantu 'S'. As a Bantu language, Zulu is related to a large number of languages spoken throughout much of Eastern, Southern, and Central Africa from South Africa to Cameroon in the west and Kenya in the east. Other LMP Bantu languages are Shona, Swahili, and Xhosa.

Zulu has a number of dialects, four of which are generally recognized as the major dialects: Zulu (of Zululand), Zulu (of Natal), Lala and Qwabe (Voegelin and Voegelin 1977). Van Wyk (1966) lists at least four regional variants of Zulu: Zululand (KwaZulu in Natal Province), of Natal itself, the Transvaal, and Zimbabwean Ndebele. One scholar (Doke 1954) has a somewhat different list. Ndebele (or Northern Ndebele), spoken by the Matabele in Zimbabwe is a mutually intelligible dialect of Zulu, but for nonlinguistic reasons could be considered a separate language. It is spoken by the descendants of Mzilikazi and his followers who fled across the Limpopo River into present day Zimbabwe in 1837. There is a Zulu based pidgin, known as Fanagalo (and by a host of other references), with a mixture of English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and other African language vocabulary material, which is used as a lingua franca among industrial workers.

Zulu has a Roman-based orthography which represents the spoken language well. The click sounds (see Linguistic Sketch below) are written using various combinations of graphemes; these are difficult to learn but are manageable. Written Zulu is governed by a the Zulu Language Board of KwaZulu, and is considered by some to reflect an archaic or highly stilted form of the language.

Zulu is an agglutinative language, that is, grammatical information is conveyed by attaching prefixes and suffixes to roots and stems. As in other Bantu languages, nouns are divided into sets or classes, referred to as grammatical genders. Each gender has two distinct prefixes, one marking singular nouns, the other plural nouns. There are numerous classes far exceeding the masculine, feminine and neuter classifications of familiar European languages and each class is roughly associated with certain semantic characteristics; for instance, there are classes for human beings, kinship terms, animals, plants, artifacts, abstract concepts, and so on.

Verbs are complex; a system of affixes mark various grammatical relations, such as subject, object, tense, aspect, and mood. Suffixes on verbs are used to derive, for example, passive, causative, reciprocal, and prepositional verb forms. There is a system of concordial agreement in which subject nouns, object nouns optionally, and other sentence constituents must agree with the verb of the sentence in class and number. Adjectives, possessive pronouns and demonstratives also agree in class and number with the noun they modify.

The phonology of Zulu is characterized by a simple vowel inventory and a highly marked consonantal system with ejectives, implosives and clicks. It is also a tone language with inherent high and low tones.

Zulu, and other Southern Bantu languages have borrowed words extensively from Khoisan (languages of southern Africa aboriginal hunter-gatherer populations) and in modern times from English and Afrikaans.

The role of African languages in South Africa is complex and ambiguous. Their use in education has been governed by legislation beginning with the Bantu Education Act of 1953 that has been revised over the years to reflect a changing political climate. At present Zulu is used in primary schools up to Standard 2, but thereafter is replaced by English although it is studied as a subject in both primary and secondary schools. At the secondary level most schools serving Zulu speaking students use English. All education at the university level throughout South Africa is in English or Afrikaans, but Zulu is taught as a subject in ten institutions of higher learning. In KwaZulu, it is the language of primary education in the lower grades and a compulsory subject up to Standard 10.

A considerable literature, including both prose and poetry, exists in Zulu. Literacy is high at 70 percent (Grimes 1992). The South African Broadcasting Corporation has domestic service in Zulu in both radio (up to 129 hours per week) and television (15 hours a week by TV2). A number of publications, newspapers, and monthlies are published in Zulu, or in Zulu and English or other African languages (see list in Europa Publications 1993).

Zulu is a language spoken well beyond its home areas; it is understood by all speakers of Nguni languages and is used as a lingua franca, either in its pidginized form of Fanagalo, or more standard variants, by many non-Nguni speakers from Natal to Zimbabwe. Zulu is one of the official languages of South Africa and plays a major role in Natal Province and throughout the Republic.

Zulu speaking peoples or their immediate Nguni speaking forbearers inhabited coastal regions of southeastern Africa since before the sixteenth century.

Bright, W. 1992. "Narrow Bantu 'S'" in International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 4, edited by W. Bright, 52 53. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 2. London and New York: Routledge.

Doke, C. M. 1954. The Southern Bantu Languages. London: Oxford University Press for the International African Institute.

Europa Publications. 1993. "South Africa" in The Europa World Year Book 1993, Vol. 2, 2567 2591. London: Europa Publications Limited.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Grobler, E., K. P. Prinsloo, and I. J. van der Merwe. 1990. Language Atlas of South Africa: Language and Literacy Patterns. Pretoria, Republic of South Africa: Human Sciences Research Council.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

McFerren, M. 1984. Country Status Report

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