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.

Notation used in this article[edit]

Zulu orthography does not indicate vowel length or tone, but it can be important to note this in a description of grammar. The following diacritical marks are used throughout this article to indicates aspects that the standard orthography fails to.

  • A macron ā ē ī ō ū indicates a long vowel.
  • An acute accent á é í ó ú ḿ ń indicates a high tone.
  • A circumflex accent â ê î ô û indicates a long vowel with falling tone.
  • No accent indicates a short vowel with no (low) tone, or is written where tone is not relevant.
  • A diaeresis below m̤ n̤ w̤ y̤ indicates that they are of the depressor variety.

Nouns[edit]

The Zulu noun consists of two essential parts, the prefix and the stem. Nouns are grouped into noun classes based on the prefix they have, with each class having a number. For example, the nouns ábafána "boys" and abángane "friends" belong to class 2, characterised by the prefix aba-, whereas isibongo "surname" and isíhlahla "tree" belong to class 7, characterised by the prefix isi-. The numbers are based on the classes reconstructed for Proto-Bantu, and have corresponding classes in the other Bantu languages. Therefore, classes that are missing in Zulu create a gap in the numbering, as is the case with the missing classes 12, 13 and 16 (as well as those above 17).

The prefix occurs in two forms: the full form, and the simple or short form. The full form includes an initial vowel, called the augment, while this vowel is dropped in the simple form. The two forms have different grammatical functions, as detailed below.

The following noun classes exist:

Class Full prefix Simple prefix Example
1 um(u)-1 m(u)-1 umúntu "person"
2 aba-, abe-2 ba-, be-2 abántu "people"
1a u- - úbabá "(my) father"
2a ō- bō- ṓbabá "(my) fathers"
3 um(u)-1 m(u)-1 uḿlenze "leg"
4 imi- mi- imílenze "legs"
5 ī-, ili- li- ī́qandá "egg"
6 ama- ma- amáqandá "eggs"
7 isi- si- isícebi "rich person"
8 izi- zi- izícebi "rich people"
9 in-3 n-3 înjá "dog"
10 izin-3 zin-3 ízinjá "dogs", izímpaphé "feathers"
11 ū-, ulu- lu- ū́phaphé "feather"
14 ubu- bu- ubúhlalú "bead(s)"
15 uku- ku- ukúkhanya "light"
17 uku- ku- úkwindlá "autumn"
  1. umu- is used before single-syllable stems, e.g. umúntu "person". um- is used elsewhere. Both variants have two syllables; um- is pronounced /um̩/, with a syllabic consonant.
  2. abe- occurs only in rare cases, e.g. in ábeSûthu "the Sothos" or abélungu "the Whites, the Europeans", where it has a collective, not plural meaning.
  3. The final n of the prefix becomes m before b, f, p, v, and disappears altogether before m or n. For example, ínhlanzi "fish", ímâli "money", ímpilo "life". If the noun stem begins with an aspirated or breathy voiced consonant, it becomes a plain consonant.

Every class is inherently singular or plural. Odd-numbered classes are singular, even-numbered classes are plural, with the exception of class 14 which is also singular in meaning. The plural of a noun is normally formed by switching it to the next higher class. Thus, the plural of class 1 umuntu "person" is class 2 abantu "people". For class 11 nouns, the plural is class 10. Classes 14, 15 and 17 usually have no plural at all, but in rare instances class 6 is used to form a plural for these nouns.

The class of the noun determines the forms of other parts of speech, i.e. verbs, adjectives, etc. These other parts of speech receive their own prefix, matching in class with the noun, though the prefixes themselves are not quite the same.

  • umfana omkhulu "big boy"
  • isihlahla esikhulu "large tree"

In terms of meaning, groups of similar nouns tend to belong to similar noun classes. For example, names and surnames are only found in class 1a. Nouns for people, including agent nouns, are commonly in class 1, while animals are in often class 9. Abstract nouns are often in class 14, loanwords in classes 9 and 5, and infinitives of verbs and nouns derived from them in class 15. These are only guidelines and there are exceptions in every single class.

Tone of nouns[edit]

Every noun stem (without the prefix) has an inherent tone pattern, where each syllable is inherently high (H) or low (L). For example, the stem -ntu of the noun umúntu has the pattern L (a single low-toned syllable) while the stem -fúbá of the noun ísifûba has an underlying HH pattern (two high-toned syllables). There are several rules which act to modify the underlying tones to produce the final tone pattern that is actually used in speech. Thus, the spoken tones may differ quite strikingly from the underlying tones. This is already evident in the example of ísifûba, where an underlying HH pattern is actually pronounced as FL (falling-low).

The prefixes of nouns also have an inherent tone pattern, but this is the same for all nouns and noun classes. The simple prefix has a single L tone, except for class 9 where the simple prefix does not consist of any syllables. The full prefix has an underlying HL pattern (the simple prefix has L, the augment has H), but the single-syllable prefixes of class 5, 9 and 11 have only H. Again, the underlying pattern may be modified by one or more tone rules, as seen in ubúntu, where the prefix is underlyingly úbu- but surfaces as ubú-.

The following tone rules apply to nouns:

  1. Prefix spread: If the penultimate (2nd last) syllable of the prefix is high-toned while the first syllable of the noun stem is low-toned, the high tone spreads rightward to the end of the prefix.
  2. H-spread: The last high tone in a word, if it occurs before the antepenultimate (3rd last) syllable, will spread rightward to the antepenultimate syllable. If the stem contains no high tones, this rule may apply to a high tone in the prefix as well, causing it to spread onto the stem.
  3. Phrase-final HH: Where the penultimate (2nd last) syllable is lengthened phrase-finally, if the last two syllables of a word are HH, then if...
    • both syllables belong to the stem, they become FL (falling-low).
    • the former belongs to a one-syllable prefix while the latter belongs to the stem, they become FH (falling-high).
  4. Left deletion: In a sequence of high tones that resulted from the spreading rules, all but the last high tone are deleted and replaced by low tones. Any high tones in the stem immediately preceding the last high or falling tone are also deleted, even if they are inherent rather than the result of spreading.
  5. Tone displacement: As described under Zulu phonology.
  6. Tone dissimilation: Any remaining word-final HH pattern becomes HL.

These rules are ordered, so that for example the prefix-spread rule applies before the left deletion rule: even if the left deletion rule deletes a high tone from the first syllable of the stem, the prefix spread rule will still operate as though it were still present. Thus, the application of the prefix spread rule can reveal the underlying tone of the first stem syllable. Moreover, the final two syllables are generally not modified by any of the rules, so that the underlying tones are usually readily apparent there. An exception applies for HH in the last two syllables: either the phrase-final HH rule will convert them to FL, the left deletion rule will delete the first H, giving LH, or the tone dissimilation rule will convert it into HL.

Note that the combination of the spreading rules and the left deletion rule gives the impression of high tone "shifting" rightwards. However, chronologically, these are two separate processes, and some other Nguni languages (e.g. certain Xhosa dialects) have the spreading rules but not the deletion rule.

The following table shows examples of underlying tone patterns, and the surface patterns that result after application of the rules. The hyphen indicates the boundary between the prefix and the noun stem; the tones of the prefix are shown before the hyphen, those of the noun stem itself after it.

Tone
pattern
Underlying
form
Prefix spread H-spread Phrase-final
HH
Left
deletion
Tone
displacement
Tone
dissimilation
One syllable
L úmu-ntu úmú-ntu umú-ntu
ín-dlu
H úmu-thí
ín-já în-já
ín-já
în-já
ín-ja
Two syllables
LL ísi-hlahla ísí-hlahla isí-hlahla
ín-doda
ízin-yoni ízín-yoni izín-yoni izin-yôni
izin-yóni
ízin-doda ízín-doda izín-doda
HL ísi-báya
ín-sízwa
LH ísi-kathí ísí-kathí isí-kathí
ízi-kathí ízí-kathí izí-kathí izi-kâthí
izi-káthí
izi-kâthí
izi-káthi
ín-komó
HH úm-fází úm-fâzi
úm-fází
úm-fâzi
úm-fazí
ín-kósí ín-kôsi
ín-kósí
ín-kôsi
ín-kosí
Three syllables
LLL ín-dodana ín-dódana in-dódana
ízin-dodana ízín-dodana ízín-dódana izin-dódana
HLL ín-yákatho
LHL ísi-kashána ísí-kashána isí-kashána
ízi-kashána ízí-kashána izí-kashána izi-káshána
HHL ísi-fázáne ísi-fazáne
LLH [example needed]
HLH [example needed]
LHH [example needed]
HHH úm-sébénzí úm-sébênzi
úm-sébénzí
úm-sebênzi
úm-sebenzí
Four syllables
LLLL ú-dokotela ú-dókótela u-dokótela
HLLL [example needed]
LHLL [example needed]
HLHH ín-góqokází ín-góqokâzi
ín-góqokází
ín-góqokâzi
ín-góqokazí
ín-goqókâzi
ín-goqókazí
HHLL úm-fázázana úm-fazázana
LHHH ín-tombázáné ín-tombázâne
ín-tombázáné
ín-tombazâne
ín-tombazané
ízin-tombázáné ízín-tombázáné ízín-tombázâne
ízín-tombázáné
izín-tombazâne
izín-tombazané
izin-tómbazâne
izin-tómbazané

These rules combined can often lead to ambiguity as to the underlying tones, especially with longer stems and with class 9 prefixes. For example, the surface-form ínhlamvukâzi could reflect HHLL or LHLL, where the falling tone would be the result of tone displacement, and the first high tone lost due to left deletion. But HHHH, LHHH or LLHH are also possible, with a falling-low final pattern due to phrase-final HH rather than tone displacement. Even HLLL would be possible, with H-spread followed by left deletion and tone displacement creating the falling tone. In this particular case, the noun is known to derive from ínhlâmvu, with a HH pattern, but that still leaves both HHLL and HHHH as possibilities.

Use of the full and simple forms[edit]

The full form, including the initial augment, is the default form of the noun. It is used in most circumstances, such as in the role of the subject or object of a verb. The simple form has more specific uses. These include:[1]

  • As a vocative, directly addressing someone or something.
    Babá, ngisîze! "Father, help me!"
  • When the noun is preceded by a demonstrative.
    muntu "this person"
  • When the noun is followed by the interrogative adjectives -phí "which?" or -ní "what kind of?".
    muntu muphí? "which person?"
    muntu muní? "what kind of person?"
  • After a negative verb, when the meaning is indefinite[disambiguation needed], i.e. translatable with a word such as "any".
    Angibóni bantu "I don't see any people", contrasting with Angibóni abántu "I don't see the people".
  • When the negative of the so-called "associative copulative" is formed.
    Angin̤anjá "I don't have any dog", contrasting with Ngin̤ênjá "I have a dog", in which the e reflects the combination of the final a of the copulative and the noun's augment i.
  • In a negative sentence, with an indefinite possessive modifying the object.
  • In a relative clause, when the relative concord is prefixed to a possessive form, i.e. with "whose" as a relative.
  • In a phrase which acts as a synonym of a preceding pronoun.
    Thiná, bantu,... "We, the people,..."

Locative[edit]

The locative is a noun form that indicates a location associated with the noun. It can translate to a variety of English prepositions, such as "in", "at", "on", "to" or "from", and is thus quite general in meaning. The locative is formed in two different ways, depending on the class of the noun.

For nouns in class 1(a) or 2(a), which include all proper names of people, the locative is formed by prefixing kú- to the noun, dropping the augment. The prefix has a high tone like the augment, so the tone pattern of the word does not change. For example:

  • umúntu "person" → kumúntu "at/on/to/from etc. the person"
  • abántu "people" → kubántu "at/on/to/from etc. the people"
  • úbabá "father" → babá "at/on/to/from etc. father"
  • ṓbabá "fathers" → kṓbabá "at/on/to/from etc. fathers" (u + o gives o)
  • u-Okthoba "October" → ku-Okthoba "in October"

For nouns that are not in class 1 or 2, the locative is formed by replacing the augment of the noun with e-, or with o- with class 11 nouns. For most nouns -ini is also suffixed, which causes various changes to the final vowel of the stem. The additional stem syllable also changes the tone pattern.

  • a + inieni
  • e + inieni
  • i + iniini
  • o + iniweni
  • u + iniwini

Some examples:

  • uḿlenze "leg" → emlénzeni "on the leg"
  • ī́só "eye" → swéni "in the eye"
  • ámánzi "water" → émánzini "in the water"
  • índlebé "ear" → éndlebéni "in the ear"
  • ínkungú "fog" → énkungwíni "in the fog"
  • ū́phahla "roof" → ōpháhleni "on the roof"

Some nouns have locative forms without the suffix, using just the prefix. This includes most nouns for place names, but also a few regular nouns:

Possessive[edit]

The possessive form is similar to the genitive case of some other languages. It indicates the possessor, or a more general association, and corresponds in meaning to the English preposition "of". It is placed after the noun that is possessed, and receives a special possessive prefix that agrees with the preceding noun's class. For example:

  • ū́phahla lwéndlu "the roof of the house"
  • ámasôndo bhási "the wheels of the bus"
  • úkushísa kwoḿlilo "the heat of the fire"

The possessive prefix is formed from the subject concord of verbs (see the verbs section), plus á. When the possessive prefix is attached to a noun of class 1a (the possessor is class 1a, not the thing possessed), an additional k is infixed, and the subject concord is dropped altogether when it consists of only a vowel.

Class Prefix Prefix
+ class 1a
1, 1a wá- ká-
2, 2a bá- baká-
3 wá- ká-
4 yá- ká-
5 lá- liká-
6 á- ká-
7 sá- siká-
8 zá- ziká-
9 yá- ká-
10 zá- ziká-
11 lwá- luká-
14 bá- buká-
15 kwá- kuká-
17 kwá- kuká-

The vowel of the prefix coalesces with any initial vowel of the noun, as follows:

  • a + aa
  • a + ee
  • a + ie
  • a + oo
  • a + uo

With nouns not in class 1a, the possessive prefix can be attached to either the full form or the simple form of the noun. When attached to the simple form, it has an indefinite meaning, like "of any", used with negative verbs. The full form is used in other cases. For example:

  • angidlánga úkudlá kwênjá "I didn't eat the food of the dog" / "I didn't eat the dog's food"
  • angidlánga úkudlá kwânjá "I didn't eat the food of any dog" / "I didn't eat any dog's food"

With nouns in class 1a, the prefix, extended with ka, is always attached to the simple form.[clarification needed]

The possessive form can be extended into a substantive form. It is created by prefixing á-, é- or ó- to the possessive, depending on the noun prefix of the possessed's class: a is used when the possessed noun's prefix begins with a, e when it begins with i, o when it begins with u. In class 6, áw- is prefixed.

  • índlu mzingéli "the hunter's house" → éyómzingéli "the hunter's (one)"
  • īkhompyutha likábabá "father's computer" → élikábabá "father's (one)"[clarification needed]

Copulative[edit]

The copulative form of a noun expresses identity, and has a meaning similar to the English copula be. However, it is a noun form rather than a verb, so no verb is needed, at least in the present tense. The copulative is formed by prefixing the so-called "identifying prefix", which takes three different forms:

  • ng- if the noun begins with a, e, o or u
  • y̤- if the noun begins with i
  • w̤- for class 11 nouns

By itself, the copulative form means "it is" or "it is a/the", such as:

  • ngumama "it's mother, it's a/the mother"[clarification needed]
  • intómbazâne "it's a girl"
  • ūphâhla lwéndlu "it's the roof of the house"

When a noun is equated with something else, the copulative is prefixed with a subject concord (see the verbs section) that matches the subject that the noun is equated with. The subject may or may not be explicitly stated, as usual for verbs. Thus:

  • ínja iy̤isílwane "a dog is an animal"
  • īkati liy̤isílwane "a cat is an animal"
  • nginguḿfâzi "I am a woman"
  • unguḿngane kamama "he/she is mother's friend"[clarification needed]

However, when the two things being equated have the same noun class, the subject concord is left out:

  • umúntu ngumúntu ngabántu "a person is a person through (other) people"

The substantive possessive forms of a noun also have a copulative of their own. They are formed and used in the same way as for the base noun, and always use the prefix ng-.

  • índlu yómzingéli "it's the hunter's house" → ngéyómzingéli "it's the hunter's (one)"
  • īkhompyutha likábabá "it's father's computer" → ngelíkábabá "it's father's (one)"[clarification needed]

To express the negative of the copula, corresponding to English "is not" and similar, the prefix a- is added to the subject concord of the existing copulative. The subject concord must therefore always be present; the prefix cannot be added to the "bare" copulative.

  • angiy̤isílwane "I am not an animal"
  • awunguḿngane wámi "he/she is not my friend"

Pronouns[edit]

Pronouns behave in many ways like nouns, having locative, possessive and copulative forms. They differ, however, in that they have one form for each possible class they can refer to.

The locative form of pronouns is formed like it is for class 1 or 2 nouns, using the prefix ku- and no suffix. The possessive forms are the same as for nouns. The copulative form always uses the identifying prefix yi-.

Personal pronouns[edit]

Personal pronouns occur in two forms: an independent form, which is used as a word alone, and a combining stem, which is used whenever a prefix is added. The independent form consists of the combining stem with na added at the end. Some pronouns also have a separate possessive stem, which is the combining stem that is used when a possessive prefix is added.

Class Independent Combining
stem
Possessive
stem
1st sing. miná -mi
2nd sing. wená -we -kho
1st plur. thiná -thi -íthú
2nd plur. niná -ni -ínú
1, 1a yená -ye -khé
2, 2a boná -bo -bó
3 woná -wo -wó
4 yoná -yo -yó
5 loná -lo -ló
6 woná -wo -wó
7 soná -so -só
8 zoná -zo -zó
9 yoná -yo -yó
10 zoná -zo -zó
11 loná -lo -ló
14 boná -bo -bó
15 khoná -kho -khó
17 khoná -kho -khó

The forms mina, wena, thina and nina mean "I", "you" (singular), "we" and "you" (plural) respectively. The class 1 and 2 forms are used as third-person pronouns, with yena meaning "he" or "she" and bona meaning "they". All class forms, including classes 1 and 2, mean "it" or "they" when referring to a thing of a particular class. For example, yona can refer to inja (class 9), while wona can refer to amanzi (class 6). The class 17 pronoun khona serves as a neutral pronoun, indifferent to class.

Note that outside of the first- and second-person singular, the possessive stem has an underlying high tone. Since the possessive prefix also has an underlying high tone, the combined high-high tone surfaces as a falling-low pattern, just like in nouns of the HH tone class. In the first- and second-person singular, only the possessive prefix is high-toned, so the resulting surface pattern is simply high-low.

Zulu is a pro-drop language. As the verb already includes prefixes to indicate the subject and object, personal pronouns aren't strictly needed, and are mostly used for emphasis.

Demonstrative pronouns[edit]

The demonstrative pronouns in Zulu occur in three types:

  • Proximal ("this"), referring to something near the speaker. It is formed by prefixing the relative concord with l.
  • Distal ("that"), referring to something not near the speaker. It is formed by replacing the final vowel of the proximal demonstrative with o (with an additional consonant inserted for single-syllable forms).
  • Remote ("yonder"), referring to something far from both speaker and listener, but within sight. It is formed by suffixing or yana to the proximal demonstrative (again, with changes for single-syllable forms).

There is one pronoun for each noun class that may be pointed to. As with the personal pronouns, class 17 is a neutral class.

Class Proximal Distal Remote
1, 1a ló, lóna lówo lowayā́, lowayána
2, 2a lába lábo labayā́, labayána
3 ló, lóna lówo lowayā́, lowayána
4 lé, léna léyo leyayā́, leyayána
5 léli lélo leliyā́, leliyána
6 lá, lána láwo lawayā́, lawayána
7 lési léso lesiyā́, lesiyána
8 lézi lézo leziyā́, leziyána
9 lé, léna léyo lēyā́, lēyána
10 lézi lézo leziyā́, leziyána
11 lólu lólo loluyā́, loluyána
14 lóbu lóbo lobuyā́, lobuyána
15 lókhu lókho lokhuyā́, lokhuyána
17 lókhu lókho lokhuyā́, lokhuyána

The longer forms are used especially when the demonstrative stands alone at the end of a sentence. The single-syllable forms , and remain stressed on the final syllable when prefixes are attached. The remote demonstratives in -yā́ likewise have final stress.

The demonstratives may stand alone, as true pronouns, but may also be used in combination with a noun, much like "this" and "that" in English. The demonstrative may either precede or follow a noun. If it precedes, the noun appears in the simple form, while if it follows, the noun is in the full form.

Adjectives[edit]

The term "adjective", as applied to Zulu and most other Bantu languages, usually applies only to a rather restricted set of words. However, in the wider sense, it can refer to any word that modifies a noun. The wider sense is used here. Adjectives in the stricter Bantu sense are referred to as "true adjectives" in this article.

All adjectives have one thing in common: they all follow the noun the modify, and require some kind of prefix whose class matches the preceding noun. The different types of adjectives reflect the different prefixes that are used:

  • "True" adjectives are prefixed with the adjective concord.
  • Relatives are prefixed with the relative concord.
  • Enumeratives use the enumerative concord.

Adjectives have the same tone classes that nouns do.

True adjectives[edit]

As mentioned, adjectives in the restricted sense are rather rare in Zulu, with only about two dozen existing. They form a closed class; no new adjectives are created. There are two sets of adjective concords: the regular adjective concord, and the shorter copulative concord.

The copulative adjective concord consists of just the simple noun prefix, except in class 9 where the full in- is used, and class 8 zin- which has an additional n. Forms for the first and second person exist as well. These are formed by prefixing the corresponding subject concords (see the verbs section) to the simple noun prefixes of classes 1 (singular) and 2 (plural).

The regular adjective concord is formed by prefixing a to the full noun prefix, with the vowel coalescing with the initial vowel of the noun prefix. Again, class 8 has an additional n that is not present in nouns. The first- and second-person forms are created analogically from the copulative concords, by duplicating the vowel in the subject concord and then prefixing a.

Class Regular Copulative
1st sing. engim(u)- ngim(u)-
2nd sing. om(u)- um(u)-
1st plur. esiba- siba-
2nd plur. eniba- niba-
1, 1a om(u)- m(u)-
2, 2a aba- ba-
3 om(u)- m(u)-
4 emi- mi-
5 eli- li-
6 ama- ma-
7 esi- si-
8 ezin- zin-
9 en- in-
10 ezin- zin-
11 olu- lu-
14 obu- bu-
15 oku- ku-
17 oku- ku-

Relatives[edit]

Relatives are an open class, and most English adjectives will have a corresponding relative in Zulu.

Like the true adjectives, relatives have two concords, a regular concord and a shorter copulative concord. They are formed exactly parallel, with one key difference: for relatives, the subject concord is used as the base rather than the noun prefix. The regular relative concord is then formed by prefixing a copy of the subject concord's vowel, preceded by a.

Class Regular Copulative
1st sing. engi- ngi-
2nd sing. o- u-
1st plur. esi- si-
2nd plur. eni- ni-
1, 1a o- u-
2, 2a aba- ba-
3 o- u-
4 e- i-
5 eli- li-
6 a- a-
7 esi- si-
8 ezi- zi-
9 e- i-
10 ezi- zi-
11 olu- lu-
14 obu- bu-
15 oku- ku-
17 oku- ku-

Enumeratives[edit]

Verbs[edit]

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. Verbs are normally cited with the default suffix -a.

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:

-wa to fall
-dla to eat
-enza to make, to do
-nqamula to break [something]
-osa to cook, to roast
-siza 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 -enza (to make, to do) and apply a few common suffixes to get different shades of meaning. E.g.:

-enza to make, to do
-enzana to do something together
-enzeka to be doable i.e. possible
-enzela to do something for someone
-enzisa to cause someone to do something
-enziwa to be made, to be done

Prefixes[edit]

Both the subject and, when applicable, the object of the verb are indicated by prefixes attached to the verb stem. Zulu is a pro-drop language: explicit personal pronouns are only used for emphasis, while in general the prefixes on the verb give enough information. When a noun is used as the subject or object, then the prefix must match its class. To refer to someone in the third-person, without a noun, classes 1 and 2 are used.

Three different kinds of prefix exist: primary subject, secondary subject and object prefixes. The three are essentially the same if not for tone, except in class 1.

  • Primary subject prefixes are used for the subject in all tenses of the positive indicative mood.
  • Secondary prefixes are used for the subject in all negative forms, the subjunctive and the participial mood.
  • Object prefixes are used for the object of the verb, and are only used for transitive verbs.

The letters in parentheses indicate additional letters added when the prefix is not at the start of the word.

Person/
Class
Primary
subject
Secondary
subject
Object
1st sing. ngì- ngí- ngí-
2nd sing. ù- (w)ú- kú-
1st plur. sì- sí- sí-
2nd plur. nì- ní- ní-
1 ú- (k)á- ḿ-
2 bá- bá- bá-
3 ú- (w)ú- wú-
4 í- (y)í- yí-
5 lí- lí- lí-
6 á- (w)á- wá-
7 sí- sí- sí-
8 zí- zí- zí-
9 í- (y)í- yí-
10 zí- zí- zí-
11 lú- lú- lú-
14 bú- bú- bú-
15 kú- kú- kú-
17 kú- kú- kú-
reflexive zí-

Examples:

  • Sihamba manje. "We are going now."
  • Thina sihamba manje. "We are going now." (with emphasis)
  • Ngiyambona. "I see him."
  • Ngimbona yena. "I see him." (with emphasis)
  • Ngimnika isipho. "I give her a gift."

The reflexive prefix only occurs as an object, and refers back to the subject of the sentence. It is equivalent to English forms like myself, yourself, himself and so on.

  • ngiyazibeza "I wash myself"
  • uyazibona "he sees himself"

Tone classes[edit]

Tenses and moods[edit]

Form Positive Negative
Simple tenses
Imperative (yi)...a(ni)
Infinitive uku...a ukunga...i
Present [subj1](ya)[obj]...a a[subj2][obj]...i
Participial [subj2]i[obj]...a [subj2]inga[obj]...i
Subjunctive [subj2][obj]...e [subj2]nga[obj]...i
Perfect [subj1][obj]...(il)e a[subj2][obj]...anga
Stative [subj1]...ile a[subj2]...ile
Preterite [subj1]a[obj]...a a[subj2][obj]...anga
Preterite consecutive [subj1]a[obj]...a [subj1]anga[obj]...a
Future [subj1]zo[obj](ku)...a a[subj2]zu(ku)[obj]...a
Compound tenses
Perfect continuous [subj1]be [subj2]i[obj]...a [subj1]be [subj2]inga[obj]...i
Preterite continuous [subj1]abe [subj2]i[obj]...a [subj1]abe [subj2]inga[obj]...i
Future continuous [subj1]zobe [subj2]i[obj]...a [subj1]zobe [subj2]inga[obj]...i
Past perfect [subj1]be [subj2]i[obj]...e [subj1]be [subj2]inga[obj]...anga
Past preterite [subj1]abe [subj2]i[obj]...e [subj1]abe [subj2]inga[obj]...anga
Past future [subj1]zobe [subj2]i[obj]...(il)e [subj1]zobe [subj2]inga[obj]...anga

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.

Examples:

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

Eat!

Yidlani!

Eat!

Yidle (inhlanzi)!

Eat it (the fish)!

Yidleni (inhlanzi)!

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

-enz- Yenza!

Do

Yenzani!

Do!

Kwenze!

Do this!

Kwenzeni!

Do this!

-siz- Siza!

Help!

Sizani!

Help!

Msize!

Help him!

Msizeni!

Help him!

The infinitive[edit]

Formation of the infinitive:

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

Examples:

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.

Examples:

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.

Examples:

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

Examples:

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.

Examples:

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

Examples:

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-

Examples:

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.

Examples:

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 ukuzosiza (I am coming to help) = ngizosiza (I will help), or, alternatively ngiya ukuyosiza (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.

Examples:

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

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Internal Structure of the Zulu DP, Merijn de Dreu

External links[edit]

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