Zulu is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. It is the mother tongue of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the amaZulu, of whom the majority reside in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is the sister language of three other Nguni languages spoken in South Africa, namely Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele all of which are mutually intelligible.
Historians trace the origin of the Zulu people back to about 1670, to a chieftain, Malandela, who was the father of Zulu, regarded as the progenitor of the Zulu nation. It is from his name that the word amaZulu or uZulu which means ‘The Zulu People’ has been derived.
The modern Zulu population is fairly evenly distributed in both urban and rural areas. Although KwaZulu-Natal is still their heartland, large numbers of them have been attracted by the relative economic prosperity of the province of Gauteng where, in fact, they constitute the biggest language group. Indeed, of all the indigenous languages spoken in South Africa, Zulu is the most widely spoken and understood. It is often used as a sort of a lingua franca in urban areas where mixed population groups reside.
One of the most outstanding features of the Zulu language is the grouping together of nouns into noun classes according to the form of their prefix. Fifteen such noun classes are distinguished in Zulu.
Its phonemic inventory includes 12 click sounds, all of which are of Khoi-San origin. It has a distinctive range of word classes that consists of categories such as ‘ideophone’, ‘enumerative’ and ‘copulative’.
Another striking feature is its concordial agreement system whereby all words that are grammatically related to a noun such as verbs, pronouns and adjectives, show agreement with that noun by means of a concord that is formally related to the class prefix of the noun.