At the end of the 18th Century Zulu was the language of the AmaZulu, a small clan living among speakers of a variety of related languages in the interior of South Eastern Africa, where they had been for at least three centuries. By 1828, the Emperor Shaka had transformed the clan into a powerful empire through the use of new military strategies and political skill. He structured the army by forming regiments (amabutho) from young men of similar age who came from a range of clans, whereas previously members of a regiment had been drawn from the same clan. He also replaced the long throwing spear with a short stabbing spear (Iklwa) designed for close combat, and he transformed inter-clan combat from an encounter of posturing with little or no bloodshed into an encounter of fighting to the death. Thus from having been one of many Nguni dialects, each spoken within a homogeneous chieftaincy, Zulu became the language of all the conquered and tribute-paying peoples of the new Zulu nation.
In the mid nineteen hundreds missionaries, in particular John Colenso, initiated the written form of the language by creating authographies, religious materials and other texts. And these various written forms were standardized in the 1920s. With minor modifications, that is the literary Zulu used in education and the media today.