This is by no means a simple word route today (not that they ever are, really) – 23 separate derivations from the original stem, which itself has over 11 subtly different meanings.

The history of the word is important – it’s derived from the ur-Bantu root -lûma, meaning ‘to roar’ and ‘to allow’. For its primary meaning, this word means ‘agree’ – but it also means many other things:

a) agree, assent, consent, be willing

b) accept (as a person for work or as a proffer of marriage)

c) admit, plead guilty

d) approve, admire

e) acknowledge a salutation

f) answer encouragingly to the isangoma when divining, by saying Yizwa! and Siyavuma!

divination tools
“Siyavuma!”

g) Express the feeling of a player (as an instrument when being played), or of a dance, or a poet (as in a poem)

It has the secondary meaning of

Thrive, grow well (of plants or crops)

and

Turn out well (as from a mould or a baking, brick-making, pottery, cooking, a hide in dressing – also applied to persons)

Finally, it means ‘to fall down’ – although only used with the word phansi in the phrase

ukuvuma phansi – to fall on the ground (lit. to agree downwards)

There are so many interesting aspects of this word-route – the first being the way that playing music or performing a poem or a dance is regarded as a conversation, where the performance agrees with what the performer is feeling.

Secondly, of course (knowing my proclivities towards the occult and supernatural), there is the use of the word as ‘an encouraging answer’ to an isangoma who is divining. This is a way of assenting to the power of the diviner, as well as the words being offered through the medium to the people gathered, from their amadlozi (ancestors).

If we move past the root meanings of -vuma, and into its derivations, the situation becomes slightly more complicated.

There are 7 different simple nouns derived from this stem, and one compound noun.

imvuma – a) goat or ox slaughtered by the prospective bridegroom on accepting the girl who has run to him; b) payment in proof of an agreement, earnest of a contract

imvume – permission

imvumi – a good singer, one who acts chorus well (see the second meaning of ‘vumela’ below)

umvumi – consenter, one who agrees

umvumo – low-toned chorus singing, generally of people sitting in the hut while certain ones get up and dance (see the second meaning of ‘vumela’ below)

i(li)vumo – tune, chorus

imvumo – low-toned accompaniment of a song

and

uvumazonkecompound noun from vuma and -nke (meaning ‘all’) > one who assents to anything, a credulous person; a weak-willed person, one who has no mind of his own

What’s interesting about these nouns is the fact that only 3 of them pick up on the primary meaning of the verb – to agree or assent. The rest seem preoccupied with the ‘answering’ of choruses in singing – the antiphonal style often adopted when large groups are present. So what happens to all the legal and cultural stuff associated with -vuma? To explain that, I must first explain the suffixes.

Every single verb in isiZulu can have (at least) 8 different suffixed forms, which alter the manner in which the basic action takes place:

vuma              agree

vumile            agreed (perfect)

vunywa          be agreed by… (passive)

vumeka          agreeable (neuter)

vumela           agree to/for… (applied)

vumana          agree together / agree with one another (reciprocal)

vumisa            cause to agree (causative)

vumavuma     agree just a little bit (diminutive)

Sometimes these forms stick closely to the meaning of the original stem, but sometimes they have vastly different meanings. In the case of -vuma, only -vumela has a specialised set of meanings (and further derivations, which is where the legal and contractual stuff comes in most strongly):

a) to allow, permit (as an action or person), to agree to something

b) to sing the low accompaniment or second part of a song; to sing the chorus

So here you can clearly see where the ‘antiphonal singing’ gains its basis from the -vuma stem. But of more interest is the fact that -vumela has 8 further derivations (both into nouns and verbs) – and they (almost) all have something to do with legal and contractual agreement:

umvumeli – a noun meaning “a supporter, a seconder of a motion”

imvumelo – a noun meaning “permission” (much like imvume, above)

i(li)vumelo – a noun denoting “approval, assent (to a man although he is doing wrong); support (to a wrong deed)”

vumelana – a verb meaning: a) agree with one another, permit one another, make a contract with one another, support one another; or b) tally, match

imvumelano – a noun meaning “a mutual agreement, a contract, a covenant”

isivumelwano – a noun denoting: a) mutual agreement, legal agreement, contract for sale or work; b) a covenant; or c) a grammatical concord

umvumelwano – “accompaniment”

and

isivumelwana – a noun meaning: a) beast presented by bridegroom’s people to bride’s father before the legal lobolo: today money often takes the place of the beast (also called imvulamlomo); or b) a mutual or legal agreement

So, to sum up – to agree is to sing in a way which accompanies the dancing or singing or divining of others, to make a covenant through stating things in the same key (or, at very least, in harmony with them). To agree is to support, to match, and to accompany.

But it also has the disturbing meaning of ‘giving approval to someone even when they are doing something wrong’. I wonder how often this had to be the case, for the concept to pass so clearly into common usage with a word like ‘i(li)vumelo’.

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