Survival isiZulu

It would be fun to be able to speak (read: butcher) isiZulu with others while I’m learning it. And we’re having a two-for-one deal today: replace “ngi-” with “ndi-” and most of these phrases work in isiXhosa! How practical! So here are some basic greetings and such:

  • Sawubona: Hi (to one person)
  • Sanibonani: Hi (to multiple people)
  • Mnumzane (or mnumzana): sir
  • Nkosikazi: madam
  • Yebo: yes, appears to be a typical response to “sawubona”
  • Cha: no (see notes on pronunciation below; this sounds nothing like what you think)
  • Unjani: how are you? (u-: you, singular, pronounced with a higher tone than the next syllable; pronounced with a lower tone, you are saying “how is he/she”; -njani: how)
  • Ninjani: how are you? (ni-: you, plural)
  • Ngikhona: I’m fine (ngi-: I)
  • Ngiyaphila: Another way of saying “I’m fine”; I think it means something like “I am living” (ngi-: I; -ya-: present tense, although not always used)
  • Wena: and you? (we-: you, singular; na: and)
  • Sala kahle: good bye (to a single person remaining behind; literally, “stay well”)
  • Hamba kahle: good bye (to a single person leaving; literally, “go well”)
  • Salani kahle: good bye to a group staying
  • Hambani kahle: good bye to a group leaving
  • Ngiyabonga: thank you (ngi-: I; -ya-: present tense)
  • Ngicela: please (ngi-: I; cela: request)
  • Uxolo: excuse me (u-: you, singular; again, make sure that the “u” has a higher tone on it than the next syllable)
  • Ngiyaxolisa: I’m sorry (ngi-: I; -ya-: present tense)

Notes on pronunciation: See this page and click on “Zulu” to hear the phrases. Stress the second to last syllable in a word. The second to last syllable in a phrase gets really drawn out, so “sawubona” sounds like “sawubooona”. Oftentimes, the last vowel of a word is chopped off, especially when followed by another word. So “sawubona, unjani?” can be pronounced “sawuBOnunJAAAni?”.

There are lots of little details about how to pronounce the different letters, which I’ll skip for now (although if the “k” sounds like a “g” to you, that’s because it does. You actually breathe in air while pronouncing it). The most important: if you see the letters “c”, “q”, “x”, these are clicks – fun! (I really want to get an African name that has a click in it.) “c” is pronounced like the “tsk, tsk” sound you make in reproach; start with your tongue at your teeth. “x” is pronounced like you are calling a horse; start with your tongue about where you would make an “l” sound. I’m still working on “q”; all sources say that it sounds like a cork popping, but I’m a bit fuzzy on the mechanics.

But the clicks aren’t the hard part. Two of them even show up as sounds that English speakers make. The hard part is putting a vowel after them. Have fun!


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