Counting in Zulu

Language overview

Forty-two in Zulu The Zulu language (isiZulu) belongs to the Niger–Congo languages family, and more specifically to the Bantu branch. It is spoken in South Africa (where it is co-oficial with ten other languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, and Xhosa), but also in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. The Zulu language counts about 10.3 million speakers.

Zulu numbers list

  • 1 – kunye
  • 2 – kubili
  • 3 – kuthathu
  • 4 – kune
  • 5 – kuhlanu
  • 6 – isithupha
  • 7 – isikhombisa
  • 8 – isishiyagalombili
  • 9 – isishiyagalolunye
  • 10 – ishumi
  • 11 – ishumi nanye
  • 12 – ishumi nambili
  • 13 – ishumi nantathu
  • 14 – ishumi nane
  • 15 – ishumi nanhlanu
  • 16 – ishumi nesithupha
  • 17 – ishumi nesikhombisa
  • 18 – ishumi nesishiyagalombili
  • 19 – ishumi nesishiyagalolunye
  • 20 – amashumi amabili
  • 30 – amashumi amathathu
  • 40 – amashumi amane
  • 50 – amashumi amahlanu
  • 60 – amashumi ayisithupha
  • 70 – amashumi ayisikhombisa
  • 80 – amashumi ayisishiyagalombili
  • 90 – amashumi ayisishiyagalolunye
  • 100 – ikhulu
  • 1,000 – inkulungwane
  • one million – isigidi

Clicks in Zulu

Zulu is a language with clicks, borrowed from the neighboring Khoisan languages from South and East Africa, such as Taa (or !Xóõ), !Kung (or !Xũ), Juǀʼhoans (or Zhuǀ’hõasi), and Khoekhoe (or Nàmá). Other Bantu languages like Xhosa and Sotho use clicks. A click is a sound produced with the tongue or the lips without using the lungs. The Zulu language counts three of them: the dental click, the palatal click, and the lateral click.

  • The dental click is produced by placing the tongue against the upper teeth and by removing it abruptly, like in the tsk! tsk! onomatopeia. Noted ǀ in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is transcribed by the letter c.
  • The palatal click is produced by placing the tip of the tongue in contact with the palate and by lowering the tongue. Noted ǂ in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is transcribed by the letter q.
  • The lateral click is produced by placing the tongue against the upper teeth, the air escaping from the sides, like in the tchick! sound used to spur on a horse. Noted ǁ in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is transcribed by the letter x.

Body language counting

The Zulus count on their fingers starting with the little finger of the left hand to the left thumb, and continuing with the thumb of the right hand. The digits from six to nine keep the meaning of that way of counting: the word for six, isithupha, means “thumb”, the word for seven, isikhombisa, means “the one that points out”, eight, or isishiyagalombili, means “two remain”, and finally nine, or isishiyagalolunye, means “one remains”.

Zulu numbering rules

Now that you’ve had a gist of the most useful numbers, let’s move to the writing rules for the tens, the compound numbers, and why not the hundreds, the thousands and beyond (if possible).

  • Digits from zero to nine are specific words, namely iqanda [0], kunye [1], kubili [2], kuthathu [3], kune [4], kuhlanu (or isihlanu) [5], isithupha [6], isikhombisa [7], isishiyagalombili [8], and isishiyagalolunye [9]. The one to five digits are actually roots prefixed with ku when used in general counting, such as the digits five (its second form) to nine, which are prefixed with isi.
  • When compound, the unit root is prefixed with either na, nam, nan or nes depending on its first letter. Thus the compound digits are: nanye [1], nambili [2], nantathu [3], nane [4], nanhlanu (or nesihlanu) [5], nesithupha [6], nesikhombisa [7], nesishiyagalombili [8], and nesishiyagalolunye [9].
  • The tens are formed by putting the word amashumi (plural form of ishumi, ten) before the multiplier digit separated with a space, except for ten itself: ishumi [10], amashumi amabili [20], amashumi amathathu [30], amashumi amane [40], amashumi amahlanu [50], amashumi ayisithupha [60], amashumi ayisikhombisa [70], amashumi ayisishiyagalombili [80], and amashumi ayisishiyagalolunye [90].
  • Compound numbers are formed by saying the ten, then the compound unit form, separated with a space (e.g.: ishumi nesikhombisa [17], amashumi amahlanu nesishiyagalolunye [59]).
  • The hundreds are built stating the word for hundred (ikhulu, and amakhulu in plural), then the multiplier digit root prefixed with either ama or ay depending on its first letter, separated with a space, except for one hundred itself: ikhulu [100], amakhulu amabili [200], amakhulu amathathu [300], amakhulu amane [400], amakhulu amahlanu [500], amakhulu ayisithupha [600], amakhulu ayisikhombisa [700], amakhulu ayisishiyagalombili [800], and amakhulu ayisishiyagalolunye [900].
  • The thousands follow the same structure, the word for thousand being inkulungwane (which plural is izinkulungwane), the unit prefix being either ezim or ezin: inkulungwane [1,000], izinkulungwane ezimbili [2,000], izinkulungwane ezintathu [3,000], izinkulungwane ezine [4,000], izinkulungwane ezinhlanu [5,000], izinkulungwane eziyisithupha [6,000], izinkulungwane eziyisikhombisa [7,000], izinkulungwane eziyisishiyagalombili [8,000], and izinkulungwane eziyisishiyagalolunye [9,000].
  • Higher scale numbers are: isigidi (106, million), which plural form is izigidi, then we have ibhiliyoni or isigidimbili (109, billion), ithriliyoni or isigidintathu (1012, trillion), ikhwadriliyoni (1015, quadrillion), and ikhwintiliyoni (1018, quintillion).

Write a number in full in Zulu

Let’s move now to the practice of the numbering rules in Zulu. Will you guess how to write a number in full? Enter a number and try to write it down in your head, or maybe on a piece of paper, before displaying the result.


Complete Zulu with Two Audio CDs: A Teach Yourself Guide Complete Zulu with Two Audio CDs: A Teach Yourself Guide
by , editors McGraw-Hill (2011)

Collins Zulu Phrasebook: The Right Word in Your Pocket Collins Zulu Phrasebook: The Right Word in Your Pocket
editors HarperCollins UK (2008)
[, Kindle - Kindle -]

Compact Zulu Dictionary: English-Zulu, Zulu-English Compact Zulu Dictionary: English-Zulu, Zulu-English
by , editors Educa Books (2006)

Le Zoulou de poche Le Zoulou de poche
by , editors Assimil (2008)


Bantu languages

Gwere, Kinyarwanda, Lingala, Makhuwa, Mwani, Nyungwe, Punu, Shona, Soga, Swahili, Tsonga, Tswana, Xhosa, Yao, and Zulu.

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