Language and Gender Sensitivity in reference to Zulu culture

Author: Rooweither Mabuya (SADiLaR isiZulu Researcher)

Language is a vehicle through which gender sensitivity is expressed. According to (Wodak, 1997) gender concerns the psychological, social and cultural differences between males and females. Gender refers to the fact of being male or female while gender sensitivity is the state of being aware of what society thinks about of being male and female. IsiZulu words like ubuntu/humanity and abantu/people show respect to gender sensitivity because they address both genders without singling out or giving any preference to any gender in isiZulu. Early writings presumably influenced by traditional forms of words that have sexist connotations are now often replaced by terms that are neutral in gender. For instance, in the English tradition the use of the word Ms has increased instead of the traditional Mrs or Miss and chairperson instead of chairman. These labels that are used reflect social attitudes and shapes how social structures and relationships are perceived. 

In early writing, the use of isiHlonipho in isiZulu which was widely used because of tradition shows a difference in how women spoke to men and how they wrote when they were addressing men as opposed to the contemporary usage which shows a decline due to modernity. IsiHlonipho is a custom known among the Nguni as ukuhlonipha literally ‘to respect’ which is a language of respect. This custom is also used among the Southern Sotho people as ho hlonepha which carries the same meaning as in the Nguni languages. According to Rudwick & Shange (2006) females have little choice in deciding for or against the use of isiHlonipho as they are largely restricted to life in a highly patriarchal system. It is known that the patriarchal rules that were applied decades ago in the language are not actively in use due to the change in discourse. Thomas et al (2004) say that the differences between women’s and men’s use of language are varied. Feminist researchers argue that linguistic sexism institutionalizes gender asymmetries and power differences. Lakoff (1987) cited in Chitauro-Mawema (2006), states that in asymmetries reflected in gender studies women are subsumed under the linguistic norm which is based on, or identical to men’s representations, leading to their invisibility. It is clear that gender sensitivity in language use comes with the stigma that one gender is linguistically superior to the other.


Chitauro-Mawema, 2006. Gender Sensitivity in Shona Language Use: A lexicographic and corpus-based study of words in context.

Mabuya, R. 2018. A corpus linguistic analysis of gender sensitive language in isiZulu. MA Thesis, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Rudwick, S. and Shange, M. 2006. Sociolinguistic oppression or expression of ‘Zuluness’? ‘IsiHlonipho’ among isiZulu-speaking females, Southern African Linguistics and Applied Languages Studies, 24:4, 473-482.

Wodak, R. 1997. Gender and Discourse. London: Sage Publications