Linguistic Analysis Of Word Order In Zulu Essay

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¶ … Zulu Linguistic Analysis of Word Order in Zulu

Before delving into the intricacies of Zulu grammar, it is critical that a general understanding of the language, its structure and its historical and geographical distribution be provided. Zulu (isiZulu) is an important language spoken by approximately ten million people in Southern Africa (Ethnolouge, 2009). It is a language which belongs to the Bantu language family which extends from the Cape to the Equator. Zulu is a member of the South-eastern zone of Bantu, which includes four language groups: Nguni, Tsonga, Sotho and Venda. Within the Nguni group, there are two sub-sections: the Zunda and Tekela. Within the Zunda subgroup can be found the Xhosa and Zulu languages (Maho, 2002). Today, Zulu is the most widely spoken native language in South Africa making it a major language within the country (Ethnolouge, 2009).

Some of the key grammatical features of Zulu are a constituent word order of subject-verb-object and an agglutinative morphology (Colenso, 1882). Similar to other Bantu languages, the structure of Zulu is based on two principles: a) the system of noun classes and b) the system of concords (Maho, 2002). Zulu nouns are classified into a variety of morphological classes based on the type of object, with different prefixes for singular and plural. Various parts of speech that qualify a noun must agree with the noun according to its class (Dent and Nyembezi, 1969). The importance of the class prefixes is that they are employed in linking the noun to other parts of the sentence by means of a concord which is derived from the class prefix (Doke, 1955). This phenomenon is of great importance to remember because the whole of the sentence structure of Zulu and of all Bantu languages rests on it (Maho, 2002).

Linguistic Analysis of Word Order in Zulu

1. Simple Affirmative Sentence

The simple affirmative sentence consists of a subject, a verb and an object. In Zulu there is a relationship between the subject and the verb, manifested by the subject concord (Wilkes, 2004):

Umfazi ubiza umfana (The women calls the boy).

The subject concord resembles the class prefix of the noun which is the subject of the clause.

1.1. Transitive Verbs

Transitive verbs express an action that requires an object. Within Zulu, there are two voices -- the active and the passive. The active form has the agent action upon the object (Doke, 1955):

Abantu ba zi bona izinkono (The people see the cattle).

Whereas the passive form has the object acting on the agent:

Izinkono zi boniwe abantu (The cattle is seen by the people).

This form is generally formed by inserting a -- w for a -- u in the final vowel of the active verb.

1.1.1. Argument: Nouns

The noun in Zulu consists of two primary parts, the prefix and stem. Using the prefix, noun classes can be understood, which correspond with particular object categories. Each noun class has a specific grammatical conjugation and semantic role. The grammatical number is provided by the noun which makes it possible to organize all noun classes (except class 14 and 15, which don't have plural forms) into singular and plural pairs:

Class 7 isi (e.g. isiggoko (hat)) with Class 8 izi (e.g. iziggoko (hats))

In addition, the noun class dictates the form of the other pieces of the sentence as they relate to verb and adjective conjugation. Semantically, similar noun exist within each group. Therefore, class 14 is just abstract concepts while 15 is nouns formed from infinitive verbs (Doke, 1958).

1.1.2. Argument: Pronouns

In Zulu, no direct correspondence for English personal pronouns exist. The most comparison is subject-prefix correspondence. As Zulu subject-prefixes cannot stand alone, they are attached to a verb. This system is possible as there is a unique subject-prefix for each grammatical person within each noun class (Nyembezi, 1970):

Abafana badlile (They have eaten) where aba- is the 3rd person plural.

1.2. Intransitive Verbs

Intransitive verbs connotate an action that does require the addition of an object:

Ngi pila (I live)

1.2.1. Argument: Nouns

In the intransitive case, the object noun is independent and therefore does not require qualification by the verb or noun group (Doke, 1958)

1.2.2. Argument: Pronouns

In the intransitive case, the prefix requires modification to give person and tense.

2. Interrogative Structures

Interrogative sentences are used to form questions. The interrogative is not a particular form of speech in Zulu. Interrogatives need not even be words but may be suffixes (Doke, 1958).

2.1. Yes/No Questions

The words of an interrogative clause do not change their position as in English, i.e. The words in Zulu remain as in the plain statement. The intonation of the clause changes, however (Nyembezi, 1970). The non-interrogative clause has a long penultimate syllable:


(The women cooks food).
In the interrogative clause the length is discarded and the modulation of the voice becomes higher at the end of the sentence:

Q: Umfazi upheka ukudla? (Does the women cook food?)

A. Yebo, umfazi upheka uku:dla. (Yes, the women cooks food.)

2.1.1. Is there any element that demonstrates that it is a yes/no question? If so, where is this element placed? Is there a change of order/position?

The interrogative clause can also be formed by means of an interrogative adverb, by na.

Umfazi upheka ukudla na? (Does the women cook food?)

The use of na can be compared to the Canadian English interrogative use of the? In both cases, the voice rises and the penultimate syllable is shorter than the plain statement (Doke, 1958). In addition, there is the interrogative ini or yini which is used liked na, though yini can be used to imply doubt (Nyzembezi, 1970):

Ugijima kakhulu yini? (Does he run fast or not?

2.2. Wh- Questions

In order to ask any "What" or "How," the suffix -- ni can be added to a verb:

Q: Wenzani? (What are you doing?)

A: Ngivala isango. (I am closing the gate.)


Q: Unjani? (How are you?)

A: Ngikhona. (I am well.)

The adverb nini is adverb used in the same format at ni to connotate when. The adverb ubani is a noun class meaning who? In both the singular and plural structure (Taljaard and Bosch, 1988).

2.2.1. Is there a change of order (movement to the first position) or does it occupy the usual position in the sentence?

The words of a question may be changed around without changing the meaning of the sentence. For example:

Uphuzani ubaba? (Does he drink water?)

Can transition to the question:

Ubaba uphuzani? (Does he drink water?)

Without changing the answer:

Uphuza amanzi. (He drinks water.)

This is because the subject (Ubaba/Father) is not only understood but also included in the answer by means of the subject concored u- of uphaza which represents ubaba (Dokes, 1958).

2.2.2. Can we use more than one wh-word in the sentence? If so, what is its order?

Yes. In Zulu, the plain statement and the interrogative clause have the same word order and are only dependent on the insertion of various interrogative predicates. Multiple predicates can be inserted without impact on word order as long as conjugation indicates the interrogative subject and object (Molteno, 1997):

Lababafana abafuni ukudlala nathi esikoleni (Where are the boys and who does not want to play?)

3. Negation.

How does it occur? Which position does the negative element occupy?

To express negation in Zulu, a negative formative ka- or a- is inserted onto the predicate (i.e. subject concord with or without object concord plus stem) in which the verb stem ends in -- i:

Abafuna kabawuthandi umsebenzi (The boys do not like to work).

Note the concord of the umu- class which assumes the ka (Wilkes, 2004). However, this is not always the case and the negative form may be used with or without an object concord anywhere in the sentence as long as it is attached to the verb (Wilkes, et al., 2007):

Umfana akakhali.

Lastly, express a command in the negative the auxillary verb musa (don't) can be used with an infinitive verb:

Musa ukuhamba (Don't go!)

In spoken Zulu, the -- a of musa is often omitted, while in the plural -- ni is suffixed to musa. Therefore, the negative element in command form always begins the sentence (Wilkes, 2004).

4. Word Order in subordinate sentences.

The subordinate clause does not convey the main action of the sentence. It is dependent on the main clause. There are in Zulu three forms of subordinate clauses each with their own word order: the noun clause, the qualificative clause and the adverbial clause. For the noun clause, the clause functions as if it were a single noun:

Ukuba knhona kuyafuneka (To be present is necessary).

Or as an object:

Ngiphpuha ngilele (I dream that I sleep).

Within the qualificative clause, the clause functions to validate another part of speech whether it is a verb or adjective:

Umuthi omude uwiswe ngumoya (The tall tree was blown over by the wind).

Lastly, the adverbial clause functions like an adverb, therefore it modifies the predicate or another adverb in relation to place, time or condition:

Nxa sifika bebesaxoxoa (When we arrived, they were still chatting).

Therefore, the subordinate clause in Zulu can be understood as a unique order in the sentence but rather existing to modification various parts of speech in relation to noun class and verb agreement (Poulous, 2004; Wilkes, 2004).

5. Order of the main and auxiliary verbs

As previously noted, the Zulu verb consists…

Sources Used in Documents:


Bybee, J. 2010. Language, Usage and Cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Colenso, John William (1882). First steps in Zulu: being an elementary grammar of the Zulu language (Third ed.). Martizburg, Durban: Davis.

Comrie, B. 1990. The major languages of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Dent, G. & Nyembezi, C. 1969. Scholar's Zulu Dictionary. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter.
Ethnologue. 2009. Languages of the World: Zulu (Sixteenth edition). Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version:

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