Wednesday 17 November 2010


Yesterday I mentioned the ‘depressor’ consonants of Zulu and other Nguni languages. I have not read any recent scholarly literature on this subject, but the account in Wikipedia at least is very weak. So I thought it might be worth summarizing what I learnt of this topic in the “Introduction to Zulu” course I followed at SOAS some thirty-five years ago. It was taught by the late David Rycroft and A.B. Ngcobo.

Zulu has two (or three) phonological tones: High tone (H), shown in the examples by an acute accent (´), Falling (F) (ˆ), and unmarked or Low. However the actual pitch contour of a syllable is affected by several additional factors, notably tone assimilation, depression, and of course intonation, downdrift etc.
  1. Assimilation: unmarked syllables standing between two marked ones adopt the same pitch as the previous H (subject to certain exceptions).
  2. Depression: a vowel following a depressor consonant, if H or F, begins with a rising-pitch onset and reaches a lower high point than would otherwise apply. If it is unmarked (low), it receives low pitch, overriding the Assimilation that would otherwise apply.
Among the depressor consonants are the voiced obstruents, including the voiced clicks, but excluding the consonants written b and k, which are implosives ɓ, ɠ. There are paired depressor and non-depressor semivowels, glottal fricatives, nasals, and nasalized clicks. There is also a free-floating depressor effect characterizing certain vowel-only syllables. Rycroft claims the depressors all have breathy voice, and writes them d̤, z̤ etc. Auditorily, as already discussed, the greatest difference between the implosives ɓ, ɠ and the plain bh, g b̤, g̈ is the depressor nature of the latter but not the former.

Here is a nice example of the depressor effect. Zulu has borrowed the English word spoon, but has modified it so as to conform to the usual Bantu noun pattern of “classifier” prefix plus stem: isi-punu. (The s is taken to be the classifier isi-. The English p, unaspirated in this position, is duly mapped onto Zulu rather than onto aspirated .) Nouns that have isi- in the singular regularly form their plural by changing the prefix to izi-. Thus the plural prefix contains a depressor consonant, although the singular prefix does not. The English stress on a monosyllable is mapped onto Zulu H tone, with the result you see in the graphics, which are scanned from Rycroft’s duplicated teaching materials. Notice how the -si- syllable of the singular is assimilated to high pitch, while the depressor consonant in -zi- overrides that effect and causes low pitch.

Here’s another of his examples. The words abantwana and amadada have the same tone pattern (H on the second syllable, otherwise unmarked). The pitch patterns differ in the third syllable: partial assimilation in abantwana aɓántwaːna but depression in amadada amád̤aːd̤a.

In the word-by-word sound file of Thula Sizwe (blog, 15 Nov.), listen again to the first two words, thúla sízwe. Notice the assimilation of the pitch of unmarked -la to highish, but the abrupt drop to low pitch on -zwe caused by the depressor . In úngabókhâla the g of the second syllable is a depressor, but not the implosive ɓ of the third. In úJehóva you hear the depressor effect of the and the v. And so on.

I was impressed by Rycroft’s analysis of Zulu tone: a simple system of lexical tones, but complicated realization rules. His description, and the output of his rules, agreed exactly with what our native-speaker language consultant pronounced, although Mr Ngcobo, as seems often to happen with speakers of tone languages, had great difficulty in analysing the tones he deployed so effortlessly. (The first consonant in his name is a depressor nasalized click, the second a non-depressor implosive.)

For Rycroft’s analysis see his 1980 monograph ‘The Depression Feature in Nguni languages and its interaction with tone’, Communication No. 8. Department of African Languages, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

To bid farewell in Zulu you say salani kahle saláːni ɠaːɬé. Literally, this means ‘stay (pl.) well’, and is used when saying goodbye to people who are staying where they are as the speaker leaves. Cf hambani kahle hamb̤áːni ɠaːɬé ‘go well’, used if the addressees are leaving and the speaker is staying. See here. You will now be able to work out how the pitch patterns of the two expressions differ.

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Over the coming days I shall be busy elsewhere. Next blog posting: 22 Nov.

Salani kahle!


  1. A Bulgarian friend of mine used to complain that when someone said to him "Welcome!" he did not know what to say, because English lacks a standard reply from guest to host, comparable to the standard Bulgarian reply ""Добре намерени" to "Добре дошли". So I suggested that he say "Welfound" [ˈwɛlfʌnd].

  2. Hello Professor Wells,

    Thank you so much for this amazing website and all your contributions to the fields of phonetics and linguistics.
    I am a French undergrad in English studies(quite a general term to say that I study English civilisation, literature, linguistics, phonetics, grammar,etc.). I am leaving for South Africa in two months to finish my B.A in linguistics there.
    I am fascinated by languages and hope learning more about the three main so-called Germanic languages(English, German and Dutch)and about Zulu, Nguni and Bantu languages.
    It is going to be an amazingly enriching experience, I guess.

    Thank you once more for sharing your knowledge. It is a real source of motivation and information for an undergrad like me. I hope being able to shake hands with you one day if I am admitted to UCL in first year of master's in two years.

    Oh, I forgot to tell you that our linguistics teacher made us watch a video about RP you contributed to. We are currently learning more about RP, cockney and Estuary English features.

    Thank you very much

    Hélène MYRTA REDDY

  3. @ John Cowan: That's clever but people would probably think me a bit strange if I started saying that.

  4. I'm confused about these depressors. My mind wants to interpret depressors as "any voiced segment" yet these damned implosives are in the way, aren't they? If only these implosives were renamed ejectives and then everything would be regular again in my universe...

    John Cowan: "So I suggested that he say "Welfound" [ˈwɛlfʌnd]."

    Oh dear. Returning "Welcome!" with "Thank you!" would have avoided much unnecessary social dyslexia, I'm afraid. Nonetheless, may your friend live long and prosper despite the cruel advice he received. :o)

  5. A possible exchange in Japanese is
    Yoku kita! (Well have you come!)
    Yoku ita! (Well are you here!)

    Now if you put that into honorific language, both verbs become 'irassharu', so in theory you get
    Yoku irasshaimashita!
    Yoku irasshaimashita!

    In Western Japan 'yoku' becomes 'yoo', and you do get
    Yoo kita! (Well have you come!)
    Yoo ite'ta!

    And that 'yoo' survives in Standard Japanese 'yookoso' (Welcome!) from the courtly language before the Eastern Barbarians wrested dialectal hegemony from Kyoto:
    Yookoso! (Well indeed!) or Yookoso irrashaimashita! (Well indeed have you come!)

    Unfortunately for John Cowan, that's all they mean.

  6. If we’ve got to continue this non-phonetic subthread, how about the Greek καλώς ορίσατε ‘well did you fix/oblige/do (= welcome)’ — καλώς σάς βρήκαμε ‘well did we find you’. Aged 21, on my first visit to Greece, I felt so proud of myself when I managed to give the reply correctly in real time in a real situation.

  7. I hasten to add that my linguist friend knew better than to actually take my tongue-in-cheek advice.

  8. David Marjanović4 December 2010 at 23:51

    I'm confused about these depressors. My mind wants to interpret depressors as "any voiced segment" yet these damned implosives are in the way, aren't they? If only these implosives were renamed ejectives and then everything would be regular again in my universe...

    How about "any voiced pulmonic segment"...?

  9. Hello Professor Wells,

    Thank you for this amazingly informative website and all your contributions to the fields of phonetics and linguistics.
    I am a linguist from Taiwan and I am interested in your description about the weak voiced velar implosive of Zulu. When I started searching for other published or online accessible data about the sound recently, I was disappointed that it was usually transcribed as a plain g [e.g infinitive prefix uku- (as in ukuza ‘to come’) in ukubheka ‘to watch’ as [uguˈbɛ:ga] in the UCLA Phonetic Lab archive] rather than [uɠuˈbɛ:ɠa] in (the same as yours, I wonder who is responsible for all the phonetic symbols in that online dictionary and the entry ‘Zulu language’ in the Wikipedia). Is there any book or article showing the same analysis as yours? Thank you very much!

    Hsiao-feng Cheng


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