Proposal for Zulu Tone Textbook


This proposal is for a textbook covering the skills and concepts necessary to acquire knowledge of and proficiency in fundamental aspects of the Zulu tonal system. The text is aimed to be used as a supplement to a language textbook and written in such a way as to be appropriate for beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels.

An unmet need

While modern textbooks and supplementary materials (such as text and video instructional materials) for the Zulu language are available and continue to be developed, none of them address the issue of tone. Not only do these materials fail to teach the student lexical tone or principles of grammatical tone, they do not even prepare the student to become aware of tone, essentially keeping him from trying to deduce these on his own. The outcome of this state of affairs is that students of Zulu are prevented from acquiring an authentic pronunciation. Furthermore, no reference grammars of the grammar address tone, either.

This situation is comparable to, though much worse than, learning to speak a European language without attention to stress. When English is taught, the learner's attention is usually brought to stress issues such as the fact that the stress falls on different syllables in related words such as phótograph, photógrapher, and photográphic, and that the typographical word contract is stressed variously on the first or second syllables depending on whether it is a noun meaning “written binding agreement” (e.g. a service cóntract) or a verb meaning “to acquire a disease” (e.g. he contrácted an illness). Students of Zulu are not instructed in analogous tonal issues, and, worse yet, they are not introduced to the very concepts necessary for making sense of the tonal system. Thus, while students of European languages like English or Spanish are taught to think in terms of “primary stress”, “secondary stress”, “stressless”, and “stress shifts”, learners of Zulu are deprived of analogous concepts such as “high tone”, “rising tone”, “tone shift”, “tone spread”, and “depressor consonants”.

Because the Zulu word has more potential for internal tone contrasts than the English word has for internal stress contrasts, ignorance of the tonal system in Zulu results in a much more unnatural pronunciation than does ignorance of the stress system in English. Furthermore, because the tone system of Zulu is so much more complex than the stress system of English, while many talented foreign learners of English acquire native-like stress using only their listening skills, intuition, and analogy, even the rudiments of the Zulu tonal system are practically impossible to acquire using naive methods without native proficiency in a related language. This latter fact is aggravated by the fact the Zulu orthography does not indicate tone at all.

The nature of the Zulu tonal system

Ability to speak Zulu correctly in terms of tone requires two different types of knowledge: knowledge of the tonal properties of particular lexical items and knowledge of the “tonal grammar” which governs how these lexical items are pronounced. These two types of knowledge work in tandem. To illustrate this, let us consider the following two Zulu words, in which a high tone is indicated with an accent mark on the vowel and low tone with no accent on the vowel:

ngi-ya-xolisa “I apologize.”

bá-yá-xólisa “They apologize.”

Given the knowledge that we never get a high tone unless it is “contributed” by one of the morphemes which makes up the word and that all the high tones contributed in these two words are actually pronounced somewhere in the word, we are first led to wonder what element could have contributed the high tone in báyáxólisa. Since the related form ngiyaxolisa has no high tone, we are led to the conclusion that the high tone could not have been contributed by either the prefix ya- or by the verb stem xolisa, which is shared between the two words. Thus, the high tone must have been contributed by the prefix ba-.

It will now be noted that the ability to correctly pronounce these two words requires knowledge of both lexical tone and the tonal grammar:

The text proposed here addresses both of these types of knowledge.

It should be noted that tonal processes in Zulu are not always as straightforward as in the example given above. As a simple example of the sort of complexity which can arise, consider the two words isibhédlela “hospital” and sibhedlela “(not any) hospital” in the following two sentences:

Kúkhoná i-sibhédlela. “There's a hospital.”

Akúkho sibhedlela. “There isn't any hospital.”

As seen by the lack of high tone in the word sibhedlela, the high tone in isibhédhela is contributed by the prefix i-. However, due to the presence of the depressor consonant bh, this high tone is not pronounced on the prefix itself or even on the next syllable, obscuring the fact that it is the prefix which contributed the high tone. This example should serve to illustrate how difficult it is for the learner to even begin to understand the Zulu tonal system without directed instruction.

Supplementary nature of the textbook

The textbook will take the form of a supplementary textbook rather than a comprehensive course in the Zulu language. The reasons for this decision boil down to these:

Target audience

The target audience of this book is anyone learning Zulu who has at least learnt some basic vocabulary and acquired the ability to conjugate verbs in the present and future tenses and construct simple sentences. The ideal use of the book will be as a supplementary textbook in a beginning, intermediate, or advanced classroom setting, but there will be written exercises in each chapter, with an answer key, which will also benefit the independent learner.

While theoretical linguists are not a target audience, this text may prove useful to phonologists working in the area of Bantu tonal systems. The availability of this book in South Africa and among teachers of Nguni languages will also heighten interest in the tonology of the Bantu languages of Southern Africa and may encourage research in this rich but underdocumented field.


The textbook will teach both concepts and skills. The concepts will provide a way for students to think about tonal phenomena, to provide tools for analogy, and to deduce their own rules and generalizations beyond the scope of the specific issues addressed in the textbook. These concepts include: high, low, falling, and rising tones, tone shift, tone spread, the effects of depressor consonants, and conflicting constraints. As for the skills to be taught, these include the following:

Individual language learners use different learning strategies. Accordingly, the exercises will include both spontaneous oral production exercises and written exercises where the learner will be able to think through on paper how the lexical tonal and tonal grammar interact to produce the tonal shape on the spoken word. An answer key will be provided for these exercises to render it useful for homework and for self-study.


The textbook will be divided into about twenty topical chapters, the topics being centered on either a grammatical construction such as “the long present tense” or a tonally-relevant concept such as “depressor consonants”. This organization enhances the teacher's ability to use arbitrary chapters independently from the rest of the book.

Care will be taken to make the lessons somewhat independent, so that after certain basic concepts are presented, it will be possible for the teacher to use a particular chapter without forcing the students to work through all previous chapters. This principle will be followed through the exercises, where, when feasible, students will not be expected to have already memorized all of the lexical tone necessary to complete the exercise. Instead, all but the most basic vocabulary (such as function words and grammatical affixes) will be reintroduced as needed in each chapter.

A glossary will be provided in an appendix. This glossary will include all vocabulary items used in the exercises as well as a large number of high-frequency items which the student can refer to find tonal information on vocabulary used in his primary textbook and other sources. This glossary will include at least one thousand items.

Theoretical underpinnings

In recent years there has been a great shift in phonological theory away from describing systems in terms of rules towards describing them in terms of violable constraints, a constraint being a dispreference for a particular property. For example, a language may place particular importance on the universal dispreference for consonant clusters. Let's call this constraint No Clusters. There is another universal dispreference for deforming the pronunciation of a borrowed word. This constraint we'll call Preserve Foreign Pronunciation. If in the language in question No Clusters is deemed more important than Preserve Foreign Pronunciation, a vowel will always be inserted between two adjacent consonants in borrowings from foreign languages.

Description of phonological systems in terms of constraints is advantageous in pedagogy, because it is easier to understand phonological processes if we are able to think about why they occur. To use the example just given of inserting vowels between consonants in borrowed words, if we learn a rule like “insert a vowel between any adjacent consonants in a borrowed word”, we are not provided with any reason why the language might have such a rule. This makes the rule seem arbitrary and thus hard to remember. Furthermore, learning this phenomenon as a rule, we cannot straightforwardly carry over the idea that consonant clusters are strongly dispreferred in this language or the idea that borrowings may be subject to special considerations to other phenomena in the language where these ideas are borne out.

This book will embrace the concept of constraints as a pedagogical tool and as an intuitive and useful way of thinking about tonal phenomena. However, the constraints will be presented in intuitive terms (as in the example above), eschewing overly technical language. Ranking (that is, the relative importance of conflicting constraints) will also be presented in easy-to-understand terms and the formalism of Optimality Theory will not be presented. Avoiding formalism will also enhance the longevity of the book as phonological theory continues to evolve. It also ensures that teachers lacking a grounding in formal phonology will not shy away from using the book on the grounds that it is too technical or complicated.


The textbook will cover forms and constructions of greatest use to the second-language learner in terms of production frequency. These forms include the present, perfect (recent past), and future tenses and their negations, nouns, pronouns, bare nouns, adjectives, the copula, and conjunction with na “and”.

With regards to lexical tone, the exercises will teach and reinforce the lexical tone of 300 to 400 core vocabulary items.

The concepts and skills taught will further enable the learner with access to a native speaker to deduce the lexical tone of new nouns, adjectives, and verbs. The gifted learner will also acquire enough skills and concepts to extend his knowledge to additional forms (such as the remote past and the present subjunctive) falling outside the scope of this textbook.


The textbook should be easily adaptable to the two other major Nguni languages to which Zulu is closely related: Xhosa, Swati, and Ndebele.2 Both of these languages suffer from the same lack of pedagogical materials for tone as does Zulu. This book will be published under a license which ensures that it will fall into the public domain after a reasonable period of time, ensuring that this extensibility will be possible in both legal and practical terms. The text could also serve as an imitable model for other Bantu languages.

1Application of this process also depends on the absence of certain consonants called “depressor consonants”, but this does not come into play in the example given here.

2The Nguni languages are also known as IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SiSwati, and SiNdebele.

5 Sunday, October 5, 2003