Zulu grammar

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Zulu grammar is typical for Bantu languages, bearing all the hallmarks of this language family. These include agglutinativity, a rich array of noun classes, extensive inflection for person (both subject and object), tense and aspect and a subject–verb–object word order.


The Zulu noun consists of two essential parts, the prefix and the stem. For ease of classification, prefixes are used to group nouns into noun classes. So, for example, the nouns abafana (boys) and abangani (friends) belong to Class 2, characterised by the prefix aba-, whereas isibongo (surname) and isihlahla (tree) belong to Class 7, characterised by the prefix isi-.


Singular Plural
umuntu (person) abantu (people)
ugogo (grandmother) ogogo (grandmothers)
igama (name) amagama (names)
inhlanzi (fish) izinhlanzi (fish)

Classes 14 (ubu-), 15 and 17 (both uku-) form an exception to this rule, as they have no corresponding plural classes (if necessary, plurals of Class 14 and 17 are formed from class 6. Nouns of Class 15 have no plural forms).

Furthermore, the class of the noun determines the forms of other parts of speech, i.e. verbs, adjectives, etc. - their prefixes are derived from those of the substantive classes, and will be in agreement with them.


umfana omkhulu (large boy)
isihlahla esikhulu (large tree)

In terms of semantics, groups of similar nouns belong to similar noun classes. For example, names and surnames are only found in class 1a. Designations of persons which are derived from verbs (e.g. singer, from sing) are commonly in class 1, abstract concepts (e.g. beauty) in class 14, loanwords in classes 9 and 5, and nouns derived from the infinitives of verbs (e.g. eating, from eat) in class 15.

The following table gives an overview of Zulu noun class, arranged according to singular-plural pairs.

class prefix singular translation plural translation
1, 2 um(u)-1, aba-2, abe-3 umuntu person abantu persons
1a, 2a u-, o- ubaba father obaba fathers
3, 4 um-/umu-1, imi-2 umlenze leg imilenze legs
5, 6 i-, ama-/ame-4 iqanda egg amaqanda eggs
7, 8 isi-/is-5, izi-/iz-5 isicebi rich person izicebi rich people
9, 10 in-, izin-/izim-6 inja dog izinja dogs
11, 10 u-, izin-/izim-6 uphaphe feather izimphaphe feathers
14 ubu-, (ama-)7 ubuhlalu bead
15 uku- ukukhanya light
17 uku-, (ama-)7 ukwindla autumn

1 umu- replaces um- before monosyllabic stems, e.g. umuntu (person).

2 ab- and im- replace aba- and imi- respectively before stems beginning in a vowel, e.g. abongameli (president).

3 abe- occurs only in rare cases, e.g. in abeSuthu (the Sotho) or abeLungu (the Whites, the Europeans) where it has a collective, not plural meaning.

4 ame- occurs only in two instances, namely amehlo (eyes) the plural of iso (eye; originally: ihlo), and ameva (thorns) the plural of iva.

5 is- and iz- replace isi- and izi- respectively before stems beginning with a vowel, e.g. isandla/izandla (hand/hands).

6 The placeholder N in the prefixes iN- and iziN- for m, n or no letter at all, i.e. in classes 9 and 10 there are three different prefixes, though only one per noun stem. Examples:

iN- = i-:  iMali (money)
iN- = im-: impela (truth)
iN- = in-: inhlanzi (fish)

7 Rare, see above.

Tone classes[edit]

Zulu nouns fall into four principal tone classes: L (low / no tone), HL (= high on monosyllables, high-low on disyllables, and high on stressed syllable of longer words, followed by low), HHL (= high on disyllables; high on stressed and following syllable, followed by low, on longer words), and LHL (= low-high on disyllables; high on syllable after the stressed syllable in longer words).

Suffixes do not bear tone, but may shift the tone-bearing syllable of the stem. Monosyllabic (short) prefixes do not bear tone, but disyllabic (long) prefixes do.

Long abá-ntwana, short ba-ntwana 'children'; long ába-fána, short ba-fána 'boys'.

The (high) tone may be on either syllable of the prefix, depending on the tone pattern of the stem: on the second syllable if the stressed syllable of the stem is low tone, and on the first if the stressed syllable is high tone:

LH on L: abá-ntu 'people'
LH on LH: isí-khathí 'time'
HL on HL: ába-fó 'fellows'
HL on HHL: ín-ꜝkósí 'chief' (ꜝ is a downstep due to an elided L in the prefix)


In contrast to the noun, the Zulu verb has a variable number of components, which are arranged in sequence according to a defined set of rules. Examples of these include:

  • a subject prefix (SP), which agrees with the subject of the sentence
  • a temporal morpheme, which indicates the tense of the verb
  • an object prefix (OP), which agrees with the object of the sentence
  • the verb stem (VS), which carries the underlying meaning of the verb
  • a suffix, which can signify various aspects of the verb (e.g. tense or modality)

The verb stem and the suffix are always present, but the other parts are optional, i.e. their presence depends on the function of the verb in the sentence.

Simple verb stems[edit]

Simple verb stems are ones to which no suffixes are attached that would alter the basic meaning of the verb. Examples include:

-w- to fall
-dl- to eat
-enz- to make, to do
-nqamul- to break [something]
-os- to cook, to roast
-siz- to help

Complex verb stems[edit]

Complex verb stems are derived from simple verb stems by attaching various suffixes, thus changing the meaning. Thus, we can take the stem -enz (to make, to do) and apply a few common suffixes to get different shades of meaning. E.g.:

-enz- to make, to do
-enzan- to do something together
-enzek- to be doable i.e. possible
-enzel- to do something for someone
-enzis- to cause someone to do something
-enziw- to be made, to be done

Subject prefixes[edit]

In Zulu, a subject prefix corresponds to the subjective case of English personal pronouns, such as I or he. Unlike personal pronouns, however, Zulu subject prefix cannot stand alone, but must be attached to a verb. Zulu does possess a set of independent personal pronouns; however, these are only used to emphasise the subject to whom they refer.

An example with the subject prefix si- and the personal pronoun thina (both meaning we):

Sihamba manje. We are going now.
Thina sihamba manje. We are going now.

There is a unique subject prefix for each grammatical person and each noun class.

initial SP
Person Singular Plural
1st ngi- si-
2nd u- ni-
Class Singular Plural
1/2 u- ba-
1a/2b u- ba-
3/4 u- i-
5/6 li- a-
7/8 si- zi-
9/10 i- zi-
11/10 lu- zi-
14 bu-
15 ku-
non-initial SP
Person Singular Plural
1st -ngi- -si-
2nd -wu- -ni-
Class Singular Plural
1/2 -ka- -ba-
1a/2b -ka- -ba-
3/4 -wu- -yi-
5/6 -li- -wa-
7/8 -si- -zi-
9/10 -yi- -zi-
11/10 -lu- -zi-
14 -bu-
15 -ku-

The non-initial subject prefixes (SP) are used when a further prefix is attached to the SP, for example in the negative of certain tenses.

Object prefixes[edit]

In Zulu, the object prefix is used to designate the direct object or indirect object of a verb (formal Zulu does not distinguish between these two cases). Just like the subject prefixes, object prefixes cannot stand independently, but must be attached to a verb stem. Independent personal pronouns can be used in conjunction with object prefixes as well, serving, again, to shift the emphases of the sentences.

Examples with the OP -m- (him/her/it) and the personal pronoun yena (him/her/it):

Ngiyambona. I see him.
Ngimnika isipho. I give her a gift.
Ngimbona yena. I see him.

There is a unique object prefix for each person and noun class.

Object prefixes
Person Singular Plural
1st -ngi- -si-
2nd -ku- -ni-
Classe Singular Plural
1/2 -m- -ba-
1a/2b -m- -ba-
3/4 -wu- -yi-
5/6 -li- -wa-
7/8 -si- -zi-
9/10 -yi- -zi-
11/10 -lu- -zi-
14 -bu-
15 -ku-

The imperative[edit]

Formation of the imperative:

without object with object
Singular: (yi) - VS - a OP - VS - e
Plural: (yi) - VS - ani OP - VS - eni

The only exception to this is the common verb stem -z-, to come, whose singular and plural imperative forms are woza and wozani respectively.


without object with object
Stem Singular Plural Singular Plural
-dl- Yidla!




Yidle (inhlanzi)!

Eat it (the fish)!

Yidleni (inhlanzi)!

Eat it (the fish; inhlanzi: cl. 9; OP: -yi-)!

-enz- Yenza!





Do this!


Do this!

-siz- Siza!





Help him!


Help him!

The infinitive[edit]

Formation of the infinitive:

Aff.: uku - VS - a
Neg.: uku - nga - VS - i


Verb stem Infinitive Meaning
-w- ukuwa to fall
ukungawi not to fall (cf. note)
-dl- ukudla to eat
ukungadli not to eat
ukuyidla to eat it (e.g. inhlanzi, the fish; OP: -yi-)
ukungayidli not to eat it
-enz- ukwenza to do
ukungenzi not to do
-os- ukosa to roast
ukungosi not to roast

Several sound changes occur, when two vowels occur together. These include:

-nga- -ng- before vowels
uku- uk- before o
uku- ukw- before other vowels - this sound change occurs automatically in speech.

Note: Furthermore, the suffixe -a will be found with verb stems which end in w, never -i; e.g.: uku-nga-w-a.

The present[edit]

Formation of the present tense:

Aff.: SP - (ya) - (OP) - VS - a
Neg.: a - SP - (OP) - VS - i

The form -ya- is found when:

  • the verb is the last word in the sentence
  • the verb contains an object prefix, and the object follows the verb
  • the speaker wants to emphasise the factuality of the statement.


Uyahamba. He is going.
Uhamba ekuseni. He is going in the morning.
Akahambi. He is not going.
Uyangisiza. He is helping me.
Ungisiza namhlanje. He is helping me today.
Akangisizi. He isn't helping me.
Usiza uyise.
Uyamsiza uyise.
He is helping his father.

The participial form[edit]

Formation of the participle:

Aff.: SPP - (OP) - VS - a
Neg.: SPP - nga - (OP) - VS - i

In the participial form, the subject prefixes (SP) u-, ba- and a- of the classes 1, 1a, 2, 2b and 6 become e-, be- and e- respectively (SPP). The participial form is used, among others:

  • to indicate simultaneity
  • in subordinate clauses with certain conjunctions.
  • with certain auxiliary verbs.


Ukhuluma edla. He talks while he eats (Eating, he talks).
Ngambona engasebenzi. I saw that he was not working

The subjunctive[edit]

Formation of the subjunctive:

Aff.: SPS - (OP) - VS - e
Neg.: SPS - nga - (OP) - VS - i

In the subjunctive, the subject prefix u- of classes 1 and 1a (SP) becomes a- (SPS). The subjunctive is used

  • in wishes and polite requests
  • in sequences of requests
  • with certain auxiliary verbs


Ngamtshela ahambe. I told him he should go.
Woza lapha uzame futhi! Come here and try it again!
Umane ahleke. He only laughs.

The perfect[edit]

The perfect describes the recent, although what is meant by 'recent' depends on the speaker. In the colloquial language, the perfect is often preferred to the preterite.

Formation of the perfect:

Aff.: SP - (OP) - VS - e/ile
Neg.: a - SP - (OP) - VS - anga

The long form in -ile is found when the verb is the last word in the sentence or clause, otherwise the short form in -e is used, with the -e- accented.


Sihambile. We went.
Sihambe izolo. We went yesterday.
Asihambanga. We did not go.
Asimbonanga. We have not seen him/her.

The stative[edit]

A range of Zulu verbs indicate a change of state or a process, which tends towards some final goal (cf. inchoative verbs). To indicate that this final state has been achieved, the stative verb, which is related to the perfect, is used.

Formation of the stative:

Aff.: SP - VS - ile
Neg.: a - SP - VS - ile


Uyafa. He is dying.
Ufile. He is dead.
Ngiyalamba. I am becoming hungry.
Ngilambile. I am hungry.
Siyabuya. We are turning back.
Sibuyile. We have returned.

Note that the form verbs with certain endings, the ending -ile is not used. These are:

Verb stem Stative
-al-, -el- -ele
-an-, -en- -ene
-am-, -em- -eme
-ath-, -eth- -ethe
-as-, -es- -ese
-aw-1 -ewe

1 This is a unique case, namely the irregular passive -bulaw- from -bulal-.

The preterite[edit]

The preterite is used to indicate the distant past, the past preceding the perfect, and as a narrative perfect.

Formation of the preterite:

Aff.: SP + a - (OP) - VS - a
Neg.: a - SP - (OP) - VS - anga (cf. the perfect)

In the affirmative, because of the merger of the SP with a following a in the spoken language, the following subject prefixes result for the preterite:

Person Singular Plural
1. nga- sa-
2. wa- na-
Class Singular Plural
1/2 wa- ba-
1a/2b wa- ba-
3/4 wa- ya-
5/6 la- a-
7/8 sa- za-
9/10 ya- za-
11/10 lwa- za-
14 ba-
15 kwa-


Sahamba. We went.
Asihambanga. We did not go.
Asimbonanga. We did not see him/her.

The consecutive[edit]

Formation of the consecutive:

Aff.: SP + a - (OP) - VS - a
Neg.: SP + a - nga - (OP) - VS - a

The consecutive is used to describe a sequence of consecutive events in the preterite, and differs from it only in the negative.


Wavuka wagqoka wahamba. He woke up, dressed, and went out.
Wabaleka wangabheka emuva. He ran away and did not look back.

The future I[edit]

Formation of the future tense I:

Aff.: SP - zo - (OP) - (ku) - VS - a
Neg.: a - SP - zu - (ku)- (OP) - VS - a

The marker of the future tense is the prefix zo- in the affirmative and the corresponding zu- in the negative. The form is constructed from the auxiliary verb uku-za (or with the auxiliary uku-ya) and the infinitive of the verb. So, ngiza ukusiza (I am coming to help) = ngizosiza (I will help), or, alternatively ngiya ukusiza (I am going to help) = ngiyosiza (I will help) - English (as well as French and others) has had a similar development, whereby the verb to go has become the marker of the future tense. To form the negative, the auxiliary verb is negated and then merged with the following verb, thus angizi ukusiza = angizusiza. In the case of monosyllabic verb stems, as well as those that begin with vowels, the prefix -ku- is added to the stem – this becomes -k- before o and -kw- in front of other vowels.


Ngizokuza. I will come.
Angizukuza. I will not come.
Ngizokwakha. I will build
Angizukwakha. I will not build.
Ngizomsiza. I will help him.
Angizumsiza. I will not help him.

Other tenses[edit]

Other forms, such as the pluperfect, the future II, the progressive forms or the conjunctive forms are somewhat complicated. They are formed with single or double uses of the auxiliary verb -ba-, to be, but in practical usage are abbreviated further.

External links[edit]

  • Analytical English-Zulu Zulu-English dictionary at Isizulu.net