Zulu Language | Origin, History and Future

Zulu, also known as isiZulu, is a Southern Bantu language belonging to the Nguni branch and is spoken in Southern Africa. The Zulu people, who predominantly inhabit the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, primarily speak Zulu, with approximately 12 million native speakers. With 24% of the population communicating in Zulu and over 50% having an understanding of the language, it holds the distinction of being the most widely spoken home language in the country. Since 1994, South Africa has officially recognized Zulu as one of its 11 official languages. Additionally, Zulu is the second-most widely spoken Bantu language, following Swahili, and employs the Latin alphabet for written communication. In the context of South African English, the language is commonly referred to as isiZulu. Zulu plays a significant role in education, government, and the media within South Africa.

History of zulu language

The history of the Zulu language is deeply intertwined with the rich cultural heritage of the Zulu people, who have lived in South Africa for centuries. The Zulu language, also known as isiZulu, belongs to the Southern Bantu language family and is part of the Nguni branch. It is primarily spoken in the province of KwaZulu-Natal by approximately 8 million native speakers. Zulu holds the distinction of being the most widely spoken home language in South Africa, with 24% of the population communicating in Zulu and over 50% having an understanding of the language.

Zulu language During 19th and 20th century

Before the arrival of European missionaries, Zulu, like many other indigenous languages in Southern Africa, was primarily an oral language. The missionaries played a significant role in documenting and formalizing the language, introducing the Latin script for written communication. The first grammar book of the Zulu language was published in Norway in 1850 by the Norwegian missionary Hans Schreuder. The written form of Zulu continued to develop, and the first Zulu Bible translation appeared in 1883.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, notable Zulu writers emerged, including John Dube, who wrote the first Zulu novel, “Insila kaShaka,” in 1930. Reginald Dhlomo, Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali also made significant contributions to Zulu literature.

Zulu’s historical and cultural significance is reflected in its role in education, government, and the media within South Africa. It became one of South Africa’s 11 official languages in 1994, following the country’s transition to democracy. Although Zulu has gained recognition in various domains, further progress in the education sector is still needed. While it is taught as a subject in schools, it is currently only used as a medium of instruction from Grade 1 to 3. Nonetheless, Zulu continues to thrive in radio and television broadcasts, and it has a prominent presence in newspapers such as Ilanga, a popular African language newspaper.

The preservation and development of Zulu as a language have been overseen by organizations such as the Zulu Language Board of KwaZulu-Natal, which has now been superseded by the Pan South African Language Board. These institutions have been instrumental in promoting the use of Zulu and supporting language planning efforts. Today, Zulu remains an integral part of the linguistic and cultural tapestry of South Africa, representing the heritage and identity of the Zulu people.

Zulu Tribe and people

Zulu Tribe

The Zulu tribe is a prominent ethnic group in South Africa, with a rich cultural heritage. They live in KwaZulu-Natal province and are the largest ethnic group in the country, numbering around 10 million individuals. The Zulu society follows a patriarchal system, where men hold positions of authority and are seen as the head of the household. Zulu men take great pride in their identity and compare themselves to powerful animals like bulls, lions, and elephants. They contribute to society as defenders, hunters, and lovers. The men also play a vital role in herding cattle, learning the art of stick fighting, and creating weapons. Stick fighting is a significant aspect of Zulu culture, symbolizing manhood. Zulu men start learning stick fighting from a young age and may engage in it to settle disputes or prove their skills and manliness.

Way of Living

In Zulu society, women typically perform domestic tasks such as cleaning, raising children, collecting water and firewood, tending to crops, cooking, and making clothes. They are often considered the sole income-earners of the household. Women go through different stages of life leading up to marriage, with specific clothing and headdress customs associated with each stage. Zulu women are taught to show deference and respect to men and are always bound by male figures in their lives.

Zulu Belives

Religion and beliefs play an essential role in Zulu culture. While many Zulus identify as Christians, they also retain elements of their traditional religion, including ancestor worship. While traditional Zulu religion recognizes a creator God, the belief in ancestor spirits holds a deeper foundation. The belief in ancestor spirits encompasses the belief that they possess the ability to actively influence people’s lives, either positively or negatively. The Zulu people also value the concept of ubuntu, which emphasizes respect and generosity towards others, as it enhances one’s moral standing in the community.

Diviners, known as Sangomas, and herbalists, called Inyangas, hold significant roles in Zulu society. They invoke ancestors through divination to solve problems and prepare mixtures (Muthi) to influence the ancestors. The use of Muthi is divided into white Muthi, which has positive effects like healing, and black Muthi, associated with negative consequences. Zulu people consider those who use black Muthi as witches and shun them.

The Zulu tribe has a fascinating history. They originated from the Congo Basin in Central Africa and migrated to Natal in South Africa. Chief Dingiswayo played a crucial role in the formation of the Zulu Kingdom by centralizing power and organizing the military. Shaka, an illegitimate son of Chief Senzangakhona, became a prominent leader and established the Zulu Kingdom. Under Shaka’s reign, the Zulu army grew to 50,000 warriors and successfully defeated other clans.

Traditional Zulu clothing varies based on marital status, with single women wearing grass or beaded cotton string skirts and married women covering their bodies. Zulu cuisine predominantly consists of vegetarian dishes, with staple foods like pap (porridge) and beer made from maize and sorghum. Zulu cultural practices include stick fighting, drumming, and dancing, with drums being an integral part of celebrations.

Current Status of Zulu

Observations across generations of treating its patients have revealed a shift in language usage and cultural practices. In urban settings and among educated, middle-class Zulu families, English has gained dominance in daily life, leading to a decline in Zulu fluency and usage. The influence of modern media, such as television and smartphones, has further impacted the language. Additionally, the infusion of English loan words into Zulu conversations has become commonplace, adding richness to the language. While indicating a shift in its dynamics. People raise concerns about the diminishing use of Zulu within households and the potential effects of the smartphone-earplugs-screen culture, which exposes the youth to English content.

Despite these challenges, Zulu, with approximately 8 million speakers, still holds a significant presence, albeit facing pressure from English and the loss of certain traditional Zulu terms. Nonetheless, the passage acknowledges that Zulu remains a living and adaptable language, displaying resilience in the face of these transformations.

The closest language to Zulu

The language closest to Zulu is Xhosa, as well as Swati and Ndebele. While these languages are mutually intelligible to some extent, they are considered separate languages due to political and cultural reasons. Ndebele is closest to Zulu in terms of pronunciation but lacks the distinctive clicks found in Zulu and Xhosa.

Xhosa, on the other hand, has frequent clicks and noticeable differences in vocabulary and grammar compared to Zulu. Despite their similarities, each language has its own unique characteristics and dialects, making them distinct languages. The history of these languages involves a complex process influenced by colonial encounters, missionaries, and African ideologies of language. Zulu holds significance in South Africa as an official language, providing opportunities for employment, academic pursuits, and cultural exchange.


Zulu is a vibrant and dynamic language that is facing some challenges, but it remains a significant part of the linguistic and cultural tapestry of South Africa. The Zulu people have a rich history and culture, and the Zulu language is a key part of that heritage. The language has evolved from its primarily oral origins to a written form through the efforts of missionaries and dedicated individuals. Today, as one of South Africa’s official languages, Zulu plays a vital role in education, government, and media. While the influence of modernization and dominance of English pose obstacles to the preservation of Zulu language and cultural practices.

The language continues to demonstrate resilience in adapting to these changes. Efforts led by organizations. like, Zulu Language Board of KwaZulu-Natal and the Pan South African Language Board are working towards preserving and promoting Zulu. They ensure its ongoing relevance and recognition. Zulu’s interconnectedness with linguistic relatives, historical significance, and widespread usage solidify its position. It stands as a testament to the enduring heritage and identity of the Zulu people.

FAQ for Zulu Language and Culture

Q. Where is Zulu spoken?

A. The Zulu people in Southern Africa primarily speak Zulu, also known as isiZulu, which is a Southern Bantu language. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Zulu, also known as isiZulu, is widely used and holds the distinction of being the country’s most widely spoken home language.

Q. What is the historical significance of the Zulu language?

A. The Zulu language has a rich history intertwined with the cultural heritage of the Zulu people. It was primarily an oral language before European missionaries documented and formalized it. The language evolved with the introduction of Latin script, leading to the publication of first Zulu grammar book in 1850. Also, First Zulu Bible translation in 1883.

Q. Is Zulu dying language?

A. Zulu is not a dying language. Despite a loss of traditional words, Zulu remains a living and adaptable language, integrating English and modern technology terms for practicality. With 8 million speakers and ongoing preservation efforts, Zulu continues to thrive and maintain its significance in South African society. Zulu’s adaptability and preservation efforts ensure its relevance and position as a vibrant language within South Africa, despite changes in vocabulary.

Q. What is the current status of Zulu?

A. While Zulu faces challenges such as the dominance of English and the loss of certain traditional terms, it remains a vibrant and adaptable language. English influence and modern media have impacted Zulu usage, but it still holds a significant presence with approximately 8 million speakers.

Q. What is the closest language to Zulu?

A. The closest language to Zulu is Xhosa, followed by Swati and Ndebele. These languages share similarities but also have distinct characteristics and dialects, making them separate languages.

Q. How is Zulu culture reflected in language and customs?

A. Zulu culture is characterized by a patriarchal society, traditional beliefs, and unique customs. Stick fighting, divination, and herbalism are integral to Zulu traditions. Zulu culture emphasizes respect, generosity, and the role of ancestors in daily life.

Q. How is Zulu being preserved and promoted?

A. Efforts led by organizations like the Zulu Language Board of KwaZulu-Natal and the Pan South African Language Board focus on preserving and promoting Zulu. These institutions support language planning efforts and work towards ensuring the continued relevance and recognition of Zulu.

Q. How can one study Zulu?

A. Zulu language courses are available in academic institutions, and studying Zulu can provide employment opportunities, academic pursuits, and cultural exchange. At UW-Madison, for example, students have the opportunity to study Zulu and qualify for competitive fellowships.

Back to top button