This page describes the grammar of nouns in Zulu.
Zulu nouns, like nouns in other Bantu languages, are divided into noun classes. Each class is given a number corresponding to the same equivalent class in other Bantu languages. Noun classes are similar in concept to grammatical gender in many European languages, as the noun class determines how other words are inflected in concordance with the noun. However, noun classes also have semantic value and have an important role in determining the meaning of a noun, and are not just arbitrary like gender is in many languages.
Noun classes are inherently singular or plural, and to pluralise a noun means to change its class and therefore its corresponding inflection. Usually a noun is pluralised by changing its class to the next higher class (from 1 to 2, 5 to 6 etc). But some nouns follow different patterns, such as 1/6 or 9/6. For example, umZulu (“a Zulu person”) in class 1 is pluralised as amaZulu (“the Zulu people”) in class 6, even though the normal way to pluralize a class 1 noun is to change it into class 2.
Table of classes
The following is an overview of the noun classes in Zulu. The meanings given for each class are only general, and shouldn't be taken as a rule. Nouns in the singular classes generally change to the plural class to their right when the noun is pluralised, but not always.
|Singular classes||Plural classes|
|Class||Usual meaning(s)||Prefix||Example nouns||Class||Usual meaning(s)||Prefix||Example nouns|
|1||person||umu-, um-||umuntu (“person”), umZulu (“Zulu person”)||2||people||aba-, ab- (abe-)||abantu (“people”)|
|1a||u-||umama (“mother”), ubaba (“father”)||2a||o-||omama (“mothers”), obaba (“fathers”)|
|3||plant, body part, river||umu-, um-||umpentshisi (“peach tree”), umunwe (“finger”)||4||plants, body parts, rivers||imi-, im-||imipentshisi (“peach trees”), iminwe (“fingers”)|
|3a||u-||udokotela (“doctor”), ushukela (“sugar”)|
|5||fruit, body part, ethnicity/race (member), loanwords||ili-, i-||ipentshisi (“peach”), ikhanda (“head”), iNgisi (“English person”)||6||fruits, body parts, ethnicity/race (collective), loanwords||ama- (ame-)||amapentshisi (“peaches”), amakhanda (“heads”), amaNgisi (“(the) English people”)|
|7||object, body part, kind of person, custom/culture/language||isi-, is-||isitsha (“container, bowl”), isandla (“hand”), isidakwa (“alcoholic”), isiZulu (“Zulu culture, Zulu language”)||8||objects, body parts, kinds of people||izi-, iz-||izitsha (“containers, bowls”), izandla (“hands”), izidakwa (“alcoholics”)|
|9||animal||im-, in-, i-||inja (“dog”)||10||animals||izim-, izin-||izinja (“dogs”)|
|11||long/thin object||ulu-, u-||uphondo (“horn”), uthi (“stick”)||long/thin objects||izimpondo (“horns”), izinti (“sticks”)|
|14||abstract concept||ubu-, utsh-||ubuntu (“humanity”), utshwala (“beer”)|
|15||infinitive||uku-, uk-||ukuhamba (“to walk”)|
|17||relics, locatives, unspecified class||uku-, uk-||ukwindla (“autumn”)|
Notes about classes 1, 2 and 17
Classes 1 and 2 are a "personal" class. They are used not only with nouns of those classes, but also to refer to people in general. In particular, those classes include meanings such as "he", "she" or "they". Likewise, for the first and second person ("I", "we", "you"), whenever a noun class is called for, class 1 or 2 is used.
Class 17 is used as a kind of "default" or "indefinite" class, and is usually not specific to any kind of class. It's similar to il in French, in that it's used when there is no particular class to refer to, or when the class of something is not yet known.
Forms of the noun
Zulu nouns are composed of two main parts: a noun prefix and a stem. A noun may have several prefixes, but only the first prefix reflects the noun class and is considered significant, so all other prefixes after the first are considered part of the stem. Underlyingly, all noun prefixes and concords follow the same pattern: (u)Cu, (i)Ci, (a)Ca: a consonant C followed by a vowel. However, later changes during the evolution of the language have sometimes caused the loss of the second vowel, and sometimes the consonant as well: the class 1 prefix umu- added to the stem -fana (“boy”) yields umfana rather than *umufana.
Noun prefixes come in two varieties: the full noun prefix and the basic noun prefix. The basic noun prefix begins with a consonant and is followed by a vowel, except when the vowel has disappeared. The full noun prefix has an additional copy of the vowel attached before the basic noun prefix. This extra vowel is called the augment or initial vowel. The citation (lemma) form of a noun normally has the noun in its full form, with the augment.
The full form of the noun is the lemma form, which is found in dictionaries. It is the most common form of a noun, and is used as the subject or object of a sentence.
The basic form of the noun, which lacks the augment at the beginning, has several uses.
- When a noun is used to call out to someone or something directly, this is called a vocative. The vocative form in Zulu is just the basic form of the noun.
- After a demonstrative
- A demonstrative can be placed both before and after the noun. When it's placed before it, the augment is dropped from the noun.
The locative is an adverbial form of the noun that indicates a place, and generally translates to "at", "in", "to", "towards" or "from". There are several ways to form the locative, depending on the word.
For most nouns that are not in class 1 or 2, the locative is formed by prefixing e- to the basic form of the noun, and suffixing -ini. However, when e- is prefixed to a class 11 noun (beginning in u-) it becomes o- rather than *elu-. The suffix also changes depending on the final sounds of the noun:
- -a > -eni
- -e > -eni
- -i > -ini
- -o > -weni (but -vo, -wo + -ini > -veni, -weni)
- -u > -wini (but -vu, -wu + -ini > -vini, -wini)
- -b-, -p- > -tsh-
- -m- > -ny-
- -mb- > -nj-
For proper nouns for topographical entities like towns or rivers, only the prefix e- is added, not the suffix -ini. There are also some nouns that form their locative in this way, but they can be considered irregular.
For nouns that are in class 1 or 2, including all proper names of people, and also any pronouns, the locative is formed by prefixing ku-, and no suffix.
The copulative form is a verb-like form that expresses identity, or being something, and can be translated with the verb "to be" in English. It is formed by attaching the copulative prefix (also called the identifying prefix) to the full form of the noun. The actual prefix differs depending on the augment (initial vowel) of the noun it is attached to, although in each case the vowel of the prefix is dropped when it's followed by the initial vowel of a noun.
- ngu- (which becomes ng- before vowels): When the initial vowel is u- or a-, or when prefixed to the pronouns wena or yena.
- yi- (which becomes y- before vowels): When the initial vowel is i-, or when prefixed to something that is not a noun.
- wu- (which becomes w- before vowels): When prefixed to a class 11 noun.
- ^ The noun prefix in Zulu: intra and inter phenomena, Z. E. Xala, University of Zululand, 1996