Looking at the two letters above, it’s hard to imagine how significant they are in the language of the amaZulu. You may even be thinking I’m crazy, or lost, or both.

Let me show you.

-lo is the meaning portion (the root) of the noun isilo, which has izilo as its plural. It has numerous derivations, and one very particular cultural frame of reference – it is the title of the Zulu King.

Basically, though, it means

a) a wild beast, a wild carnivorous animal

b) a leopard, a lion (the term is particularly applied to these two beasts)

c) a red intestinal worm

d) prey, victim, target

There are numerous idioms around these two small letters:

isilo asithintwa          a wild beast is not disturbed (let sleeping dogs lie)

isilo sengwe               the leopard’s prey, an ambush or conspiracy

isiLo samaBandla, iNkosi Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu
isiLo samaBandla, iNkosi Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu

There are a number of terms of address for the Zulu King:

“IsiLo samaBandla! Wena weNdlovu! Ndabezitha! Bayethe! Inkosi yoHlanga! Ngonyama! etc.”

In this short burst, you have a number of different metaphors or links being created:

“Wild-Carnivore of-the-Assemblies-of-Men! Oh you of-the-Elephant! One-Spoken-of-by-Enemies! Bring-em-on! Lord of-the-Reeds! Lion! etc.”

It is because of these titles that the amaZulu do not use the word ‘ingonyama’ to mean ‘lion’ in common speech, nor do they use ‘isilo’ to mean ‘leopard’ – because of inhlonipho, the system of respect offered between people who are kin or bound by social agreement.

This is a system in which those portions of other words which contain the syllables of names of people of importance are rendered unusable because of that fact – so you cannot use the two syllables ‘-nyama-‘ to refer to ‘meat’ if you’re from the Zulu clan, as those syllables are part of the titles of the amaZulu – ngoNYAMA. You have to find a different word (a synonym) – and isiZulu uses iNgcosa to refer ngenhlonipho (politely) to meat.

Instead of Ngonyama meaning Lion, isiZulu uses the word i(li)Bhubhesi. Instead of isiLo, they use iNgwe.

The same inhlonipho requirements do not apply to the diminutives derived from isiLo – isilwana/e and isilonyakazane.

isilwana means ‘a small wild beast, a contemptible wild beast’ or ‘a small leopard’

isilwane has different meanings entirely: a) animal (domestic or wild); animal life; b) wild beast, ferocious animal (= isilo); c) animal or person of outstanding qualities.

isilwane then seems to have created, by horizontal formation, both an abstract and a very strange noun from the stem -lwane, as well as two further diminutives – isilwanyane and isilwanyakazane.

The abstract noun is ubulwane, denoting ‘animal character or bestiality’. Hectic.

The very strange noun is umlwane – which surprisingly belongs to the same Noun Class as certain inanimate natural objects such as rivers and trees, even though it describes something human: a) a worthless, good-for-nothing person; one despicably poor or chronically ill; b) a departed spirit (more usually i(li)dlozi). It would be a good translation for ‘you worthless pathetic creature’.

Finally (hopefully) the diminutives have the following meanings:

isilwanyakazane is an insect, a little creature, or vermin.

isilwanyane is: a) a small animal or b) a small creeping or flying creature; a terrifying little creature (more usually i(li)nunu)

and isilwanyazane means: a) an insect or b) a ‘monster’.

Interesting. And all from just two letters.

And what does it say about some of isiZulu’s underlying metaphors? That the King is like a great carnivorous beast, devouring and triumphing in protection of his pride, roaring out over his kingdom. That leadership is always considered to be violent?