SOAS University of London

Virtual Zulu

Lesson 1: Introduction

History of the language

At the end of the 18th Century Zulu was the language of the AmaZulu, a small clan living among speakers of a variety of related languages in the interior of South Eastern Africa, where they had been for at least three centuries. By 1828, the Emperor Shaka had transformed the clan into a powerful empire through the use of new military strategies and political skill. He structured the army by forming regiments (amabutho) from young men of similar age who came from a range of clans, whereas previously members of a regiment had been drawn from the same clan. He also replaced the long throwing spear with a short stabbing spear (Iklwa) designed for close combat, and he transformed inter-clan combat from an encounter of posturing with little or no bloodshed into an encounter of fighting to the death. Thus from having been one of many Nguni dialects, each spoken within a homogeneous chieftaincy, Zulu became the language of all the conquered and tribute-paying peoples of the new Zulu nation.

In the mid nineteen hundreds missionaries, in particular John Colenso, initiated the written form of the language by creating authographies, religious materials and other texts. And these various written forms were standardized in the 1920s. With minor modifications, that is the literary Zulu used in education and the media today.

Speakers of Zulu Today

Today Zulu is the most widely spoken African language of the whole Southern African region, where it is a lingua franca, that is, the language people speak when they come from different language communities. It is the home language of over ten million people in South Africa, or nearly 25% of the population . The majority of speakers live in what has been historically been called Zululand (KwaZulu), and is now the province of KwaZulu-Natal. A large number of Zulu speakers also live in urban areas such a Johannesburg and the surrounding towns . Zulu is easily understood by speakers of Xhosa (West and Eastern Cape provinces), SiSwati (Swaziland and Mpumalanga province), Ndebele (Mpumalanga province and Zimbabwe). It is estimated that Zulu is understood by over 75% of all South Africans who speaker other African languages. Only a very small number of white South Africans speak Zulu, most of those being members of farming families in the KwZulu-Natal, most of whom use a pidgin Zulu called Fanagalo .

Zulu and South African Constitution

Prior to 1996 South Africa had two official languages: English and Afrikaans. African languages were official languages only in their respective homelands; thus Zulu was an official language only in the homeland of KwaZulu. In the new constitution of 1996 the number of official languages at the national level increased to eleven, including Zulu . The constitution guarantees the linguistic rights of speakers of all eleven official languages, among them the right to mother tongue education in the first three years of school, and the right to use any official language in the workplace and in parliament. The Pan South African Language Board was established to guide implementation of the new linguistic policies, and to hear grievances of people who believe that their linguistic rights have been violated . There are currently no schools in which Zulu is the medium of instruction beyond Grade 3. All schools in KwaZulu-Natal, and most in Gauteng offer Zulu as an elective through high school.