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The isiZulu Language

IsiZulu is a Southern African language spoken predominantly in South Africa. In 1994 isiZulu became one of nine indigenous languages to obtain official recognition in South Africa’s first post-apartheid Constitution. The 2001 South African census estimates the number of isiZulu speakers to be 10 677 308. At 23% of the population, isiZulu speakers constitute the largest language group in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are situated in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Large concentrations of isiZulu speakers can also be found in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Zulu speakers are nevertheless found throughout South Africa. Moreover, isiZulu is the most widely understood African language in South Africa. This summary explores the linguistic derivation of the language, the history of written codification and dialectal variation, and recent attempts to standardize the language in South Africa.

IsiZulu forms part of the “Southern Bantu” group of African languages, which in turn forms part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The Central subgroup is further subdivided into geographical regions, each designated by a letter. The S-Group covers much of southern Africa and includes the two major dialect continua of South Africa: the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana language groups. Languages within these two groups tend to be mutually intelligible and the groups make up 47% and 25% of the South African population respectively. IsiZulu forms part of the Nguni language group and is therefore closely related to the other major languages in this group, isiXhosa, siSwati and isiNdebele. Linguists commonly drop the language prefix when referring to these languages. Hence isiZulu is commonly referred to as “Zulu.” This practice is, however, contested and in South Africa the official use of the prefixes has increased during the post-apartheid period.

IsiZulu speakers trace their origins to a chief who founded the royal line in the 16th century. In the nineteenth century the warrior king Shaka established the Zulu Kingdom as the most powerful African bulwark against British colonial penetration of the subcontinent. A famous victory over the British forces at Isandlwana is recounted in a pop song called “Impi” (Zulu for regiment), sung by the well-known South African group Juluka.

Like the other indigenous South African languages, isiZulu is a tonal language, in which the sentence structure tends to be governed by the noun. There is considerable dialectal variation in isiZulu. The main regional varieties are the central KwaZulu variety, the KwaZulu coast variety, the Natal coast variety, the lower Natal coast variety, the south west Natal variety, the northern Natal variety, the northern-Swati border variety, the Natal-Eastern Cape border variety and some urban varieties. There is also considerable language variation in Gauteng – South Africa’s most industrialized province centred on Johannesburg. In Gauteng isiZulu is the largest and most widely understood African language. It therefore serves, alongside English, as a lingua franca for many non-Zulu speakers. Zulu also forms the basis of “Iscamtho”, a township lingua franca used by young people. In Johannesburg it is also very common to hear codeswitching between English and isiZulu. The following example was recorded in Soweto: "I-Chiefs isidle nge-referee's optional time, otherwise ngabe ihambe sleg. Maar why benga stopi this system ye-injury time?"

Written isiZulu was first codified by European missionaries in he nineteenth century British colony of Natal. The first Zulu book was a Christian tract called Incwadi Yokuqala Yabafundayo, which focused on the spelling of Zulu words and the history of the Old Testament. The first grammar book was produced by L. Grout in 1859. The Bible was first translated into isiZulu in 1883.

The first literary work was Thomas Mofolo's classic novel “Chaka”, which was written in 1910 and published in 1925. The first English translation was produced in 1930. In this book Mfolo portrays the life of the legendary Zulu king Shaka, presenting him as a heroic but tragic figure, a monarch to rival Shakespeare's Macbeth. Since then isiZulu has developed the widest range of literary productions of all the indigenous languages.

During the apartheid period, the ruling National Party’s policy of Grand Apartheid was built on a vision of ethno-linguistically discrete territories for South Africa’s indigenous population. Beginning after 1960, the widely condemned “Bantustan” policies of Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd resulted in the creation of ten self-governing territories in predominantly rural areas of South Africa. Thus the independent territory of “KwaZulu” was created in what today forms part of the province of KwaZulu-Natal, to serve as the designated homeland of Zulu speakers.

Under apartheid separate language boards were also created for each of the nine standardized indigenous languages. The Zulu language board standardized the orthography of the language and helped to set the standards that would subsequently be taught in schools. Despite the relative strength of isiZulu vis-à-vis other African languages, the restrictions imposed by apartheid education limited the extent to which this language was used in schools.

Following the democratic transition 1994 responsibility for language policy and development now rests with the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. A new body – the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) – was also created and charged with responsibility for language planning. PanSALB has sought to facilitate the further development of the language. The isiZulu Lexicography Unit has therefore been created and is responsible for developing terminology in the language. The development of the language in education has proven to be especially difficult. While the language is taught as a subject at all levels, it is only used as a medium of instruction from grade 1 to grade 3. Zulu is well represented on radio and shares a television channel with other Nguni languages. It also has the most established African language newspaper in South Africa – Ilanga.

Famous Zulu speakers include the former leader of the African National Congress and Nobel laureate, Albert Lethuli; as well as the current leader of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma. The Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambaza are currently one of the top selling African acts. They became famous after working with Paul Simon on the Graceland album.

For translation services into this language please visit > South African Languages Translation Service.

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