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Blog / Miriam Makeba

The Zulu Kingdom: Click Speaking, Miriam Makeba and More!

The Zulu (pronounced ZOO-loo) people are one of the most well-known groups in Africa, most notably for their unique style of speaking. Descendants of the Nguni-speaking people, they are known for their "click" speaking and singing.

Today, close to 10 million Zulu-speaking people live in South Africa, primarily in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. Some also reside in other areas, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. However, the Zulu tribe’s people are concentrated in rural and urban communities in the southern part of the continent. To learn more about the culture and history of the fascinating Zulu people, we highly recommend viewing this video - Kingdoms of Africa: The Zulu Kingdom (Episode 6 of 8 about the Kingdoms of Africa).

"Shaka kaSenzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu was the most influential leader of the Zulu Kingdom. He is widely credited with uniting many of the Northern Nguni people, specifically the Mtetwa Paramountcy and the Ndwandwe into the Zulu Kingdom, the beginnings of a nation that held sway over the portion of southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu Rivers, and his statesmanship and vigour marked him as one of the greatest Zulu kings. He has been called a military genius for his reforms and innovations, and condemned for the brutality of his reign." Source: Kingdoms of Africa.

Here is a map showing the approximate geographical area of South Africa where isiZulu is spoken (indicated in green)

isiZulu Language

To the surprise of many, click speaking, which is formally known as the isiZulu language, is one of the most dominant languages in South Africa. In fact, the language is so popular that it became one of South Africa’s official languages in 1994. To date, there are 11 official languages.

Zulu is the most widely spoken language in the home, and it is understood by well over 50% of the population in the region. “Zulu is idiomatic and proverbial and is characterized by many clicks. The Zulu language is characterized by hlonipha (respect) terms. Addressing those who are older than oneself, especially elderly and senior people, by their first names is viewed as lack of respect. Therefore, terms like baba (father) and mama (mother) are used not only to address one's parents but also other senior males and females of the community.” Since the Zulu tribe has religious roots in Christian and traditional beliefs, it makes sense that Christian missionaries were the first to create a way to write Zulu. The first Zulu Christian booklet was written by Newton Adams, George Newton and Aldin Grout between 1837 and 1838. It was titled Incwadi Yokuqala Yabafundayo, and it explained the spelling of Zulu words as well as the history of the Old Testament. One our favourite examples of the "click" songs of the Zulu people is the venerable Miriam Makeba - Mama Afrika. Enjoy her famous performance of Quongqothwane, also known as the click song during the festival "Zaire 74".

Zulu Musical Style

As with many Africa cultures, music is a group activity for the Zulu people. Often, all village members will join in producing the music that accompanies ritualistic dance. Members of the group will gather around the main performers of the dance, singing in unison while other members play instruments.

Zulu Instruments

The Zulu use many musical instruments that are common to African music. They employ several types of drums, including the djembe drum and the ngoma drum, into their performances, as well as ankle rattles, shakers, rain sticks and bells. The Zulu also use their bodies as instruments by clapping and slapping parts of their bodies rhythmically.

Perhaps, the most fascinating features of the Zulu language is the use of click consonants. These consonants are unique and unlike anything we use in the English language to form words and phrases. Even though the click sound feature is shared with a number of languages in southern Africa, it is primarily used in the KwaZulu-Natal region.


As outlined on Wikipedia, there are three articulations of clicks in the Zulu language:

  • c: dental (comparable to a sucking of teeth, as the sound one makes for 'tsk tsk')
  • q: alveolar (comparable to a bottle top 'pop')
  • x: lateral (comparable to a click one may do for a walking horse)

Each articulation covers five click consonants, with differences such as being voiced, aspirated, or nasalised, for a total of 15 different click sounds.

The Zulu Alphabet

Here is a chart outlining the Zulu pronunciation and click consonants that make up the language: 


Learn the Zulu Click Sounds

Talking about the Zulu language is one thing, but actually hearing the sounds and learning how to make the click sounds will provide you with proper context. Here are a number of instructional videos that will teach you about the basics of the click speaking of the Zulu Tribe:

Q, Qh & Gq Click Sounds

X, Xh, Gx Click Sounds


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