You hear a word, and something in it sticks in you. You hear it often enough, and it starts to take on a specific meaning depending on when you hear it. You grow to understand it, and even use it. But it nags at you. It begs to be investigated.

So you track it down, following false etymologies and tonal differences until you discover a small core of meaning – an ancient weathered glacial element of language, one of very few that may have been the first words spoken in isiZulu.

This is the rabbit hole. And how far down it you can go doesn’t depend solely on the resources to which you have access – you can only follow it to the end if you have curiosity enough.

To avoid following this trail is to resist an urge that is deeply ingrained in me. I remember sitting with my father, investigating the journeys of our favourite words while we listened to the chatter and clicks and chirupping of birds in the trees around us.

What we were doing was tracing the root complexes of the words – the core unit of meaning at the heart of a word, from which all other forms were built in order to flex the capacities of the language to convey meaning in a complex environment.

The routes that words in isiZulu take are interwoven with the strategic deployment of various Noun Class categorisations, as well as the addition of Verbal Suffixes. Each Noun in isiZulu consists of two components – the root and the prefix. The prefix conveys the number of the noun (whether it’s single or plural), much like the suffixes used in English (door becoming doors, hippopotamus becoming hippopotami, etc.). However it also conveys something different – a specific category into which each noun can fit. These categories, or Noun Classes, have associations such as ‘inanimate natural objects’, ‘human beings’, ‘common animals’ and ‘abstract essences’. Each noun, in addition to the prefix, has a root – a core of meaning which holds what everything else in the word relates to.

You can take a root and join it to other noun classes in order to achieve different nuances of meaning, so:

umu-ntu means ‘singlehuman-person’ >> a personNTU word route
aba-ntu means ‘pluralhuman-person’ >> people

isi-ntu means ‘singlemanmade-person’ >> culture

ulu-ntu means ‘singleconceptual-person’ >> community

ubu-ntu means ‘essential-person’ >> humanism, humanity

You can do this with many roots, in both Nouns and Verbs (since verbs are actually nouns in some instances, this distinction is inaccurate).

See the ‘word routes’ tag on this post to follow more. 🙂 happy hunting.