Dábu is an ideophone – a part of speech which in isiZulu has the rather usage-oriented name of ‘isenzukuthi’. What this means is ‘the thing that works using ukuthi’ – so-called because ideophones are used much like the English phrases ‘it goes bang‘ or ‘they always go pop like that’, where the ‘to go…’ is ‘ukuthi…’ in isiZulu, and the words in bold are ideophones.
No, they’re not always onomatopoeic- ideophones are words that use a certain sound to denote the carrying out of an action, so they are adverbial or descriptive in that sense. They are also the root of many nouns and verbs, through fairly standard paths of derivation, e.g. ukuqhuma (to explode) and umqhumuko (a bursting forth of people or things) are derived from the ideophone qhúmu (denoting ‘bursting open’ or ‘crushing something that bursts or breaks noisily’).
Today’s word is dábu, denoting tearing or cracking. There are 6 pure nouns, 3 compound nouns and 3 verbs that derive from this one ideophone.
In terms of 6 pure nouns, there are the following:
umdabu is a) origin (as of a tribe); b) an inyanga’s name for the intolwane plant, Elephantorhiza burchelii, a dwarf Mimosa shrub, whose roots are used as an emetic for love-charms, as well as for stomach and chest complaints
umdabuka is a) a crack in the skin; b) original inhabitant of a place
isidabuko is a place of origin, an original source or original custom
indabuko is a) source, origin b) inherited custom
umdabuko is a) source, origin b) original custom, inherited manners
The 3 Compound Nouns are:
indabulaluvalo: literally ‘fear-cracker’ a) a species of marble, which is used ground up as part of any medicine for causing unusual power (as by young men when courting, or to induce favour); b) species of trees, whose bark is used for chest and heart complaints, Spermacoce natalensis, Panicum maximum or Senecio bupleroides
ilidabulambizo, literally ‘pot-render’; Young bullock with tender flesh (the swelling of the flesh on cooking is supposed to burst the pots)
udabulizangci, literally ‘one-who-rends-like-a-wild-dog’: Love charm medicine
Finally, having been led into the metaphors of rending and cracking and tearing, here are the 3 verbs (each with a number of suffixal derivatives):
dabuka: intransitive verb: a) get torn or rent (as a garment); b) crack, become cracked (of earthen vessel, of the skin), become chapped; c) become heart-broken, saddened, grieved; be sorry, contrite; d) die, draw the last breath; e) originate, have origin (as a tribe); f) idiomatic uses, such as: ‘ukudabuka indlebe’ (be unsettled, be in a state of alarm and anxiety) and ‘ukudabuka kokusa’ (the break of dawn).
dabukela: applied form of ‘dabuka’: a) get torn for, crack for; b) be sorry for, pity; c) have origin at, originate at
dabula: transitive verb: a) tear, rend; cleave, split down, saw through; chap (of cloth); b) pass through, cut across; c) survey, divide off plots of land; d) cause sorrow, cut to the heart; e) bring into being, originate, create; f) Unsheathe, draw weapon (as if from bundle)
These are the different aspects of dábu – an ideophone having quite interesting effects on things like the creation myth of the amaZulu. In this myth, it is said that
abantu badatshulwe ohlangeni
people were cleaved off from the bundle of reeds
The reeds occupy a central part of the creation mythology of the amaZulu and the amaSwati. And so the reed ceremony celebrates the young and supple, reedlike young men and women in a series of fertility rituals. The amabutho in formation, about to attack, stand like a rustling stand of reeds with spears to the sky. And it is that first cleaving which is remembered every time one of us dies, or one draws a weapon.