*ba, *fa, *ga, *hlwa, *kha, *lwa, *ma, *mba, *na, *nya, *pha, *sa, *sha, *sho, *tha, *thi,  *va, *wa, *ya, *za & *zwa

These are the smallest verbs that there are in isiZulu, although many of them have a huge impact on the language. I have called them ‘monoconsonantal’ because the meaning doesn’t actually lie in the -a that suffixes them all (apart from *sho and *thi) – it lies in that single consonantal sound at their heart.

The asterisk on the front of these verbs means that they do not exist on their own, but must be joined to a concord (isiZulu has a system of alliterative agreement, which uses a modification of the prefix of the noun to show which noun is the Subject, which the Object, or which is being Adjectivally, Relatively, Enumeratively or Possessively qualified – needs another blog) or Noun Class Prefix (also needs another blog) in order to make meaning, e.g.

-fa (*die) > ukufa (death / to die) or ngiyafa (I am dying) or angifi (I am not dying)

These small verbs shed some light on the important parts of the language. Some of them are highly ‘irregular’ – meaning that they have remained unchanged while the rest of the language has changed around them. In this list, *sho and *thi are the biggest culprits.

So… what do they mean?

*ba means ‘become’ or ‘be’ (though used in a very different way from English ‘to be’)

*fa means ‘die’ (see the Word Route blog on *fa for more)

*ga is the hlonipha term for the more usual verb *ya (see below)

*hlwa is the verb for ‘becoming dark’, ‘becoming dusk’, ‘being eclipsed’ or ‘becoming mystified, stupefied or at a loss what to do’ (one of my personal favourites, the perfect form -hlwile is used derogatorily when referring to someone who is a few sandwiches short of a picnic basket)

*kha is an interesting one – ‘to pick flowers, to pluck or gather fruit’, ‘dip up or draw water’ or ‘take a fancy to, be attracted to something’

*lwa has a less pleasant meaning – ‘to fight, battle with, contend, struggle’.

*ma is quite a crucial little verb, much like the Greek histemi, with separate transitive and intransitive meanings: Intransitive – a) to stand, stand erect, stand still, be stationary, stop, halt, be settled; b) to be constant, persistent or continue in something, be in vogue, be of a certain disposition; c) present oneself for acceptance in marriage, as a girl in a strange umuzi. Transitive – stand in the way, act as an obstacle.

*mba is the nucleus of the name for one of my favourite foods (amazaMBane – potatoes), coming from the meaning of ‘dig, dig a hole, dig up, excavate, root up (as a pig), burrow (as an ant-bear)’, though not from the secondary meaning of ‘digging the toes in (as when running hard), speeding off’.

*na is the verb for rain, and is one which for many years I thought was *yana, since I only ever heard it as liyana (it is raining). In addition to denoting ‘pouring down with rain’, it is another hlonipha term for *ya (see below)

*nya is a verb which pops up in most languages at this basic level – meaning ‘pass excreta’ or, more colloquially, ‘shit’. As the dictionary points out, “it is more polite to use the phrase ukuya ngaphandle (to go outside)”.

*pha is the root of common South African names like Sipho (isiPHo – Gift) and Siphokazi (Female Gift), and means ‘give, present, bestow, donate’, as well as (inexplicably) ‘thin out (thick growth, crops etc.)’.

*sa is at the heart of the word for tomorrow – ukusasa in isiZulu – and denotes the rising or dawning of the sun, as well as the metaphorical applications of ‘clearing up’, ‘becoming bright of intellect or becoming intelligent’ and ‘maturing’.

*sha has an interesting link to the adjective -sha (new), in that it means ‘be on fire’ or ‘burn’, as well as ‘dry up’, ‘become hoarse’ or ‘get into an awkward or uncomfortable position’.

And, as we get to the last 8, we hit the first of the two ‘highly irregular’ verbs – *sho.

Basically, *sho means ‘Say’. There is a distinction to be made here, which only makes sense when seen with *thi – which also, incidentally, means ‘Say’. *sho is usually not followed by the actual words uttered, and so is closest to the English verbs ‘speak’ or ‘utter’ (in their intransitive senses). *thi, on the other hand, is usually followed by the actual words that someone uttered, “and not merely some reference to or description of them”. Both verbs have the secondary meaning of ‘mean, intend, imagine, think etc.’ – the etc. being used to stand for anything that someone can say. They then each have many specialised meanings, as one would expect from a verb of saying. These specialised meanings will be the subject of another blog at some point.

Moving on, *tha is a wonderfully economic little syllable denoting ‘naming’ as well as ‘pouring into a vessel with a small aperture’, ‘injecting an enema’ and ‘selecting or picking out the best’. It will also have to be the subject of a Word Route at some point.

*va is a verb that I was not aware of until yesterday, but which is equally poetic – ‘to yield abundantly, increase in numbers’, ‘to exceed, or exceed 10’, ‘to set, thicken’ and ‘to be kind or amiable’.

*wa is a word that has been with me since childhood, accident-prone as I was – ‘to fall’ as well as ‘to make a mistake, be misled, make a slip’.

*ya (the one with many hlonipha versions) means ‘go to’ or ‘go towards’, and is easy to remember because it is the primary indicator of the ‘going’ tense – present definite (e.g. ngiYAfa – ‘I’m-going-die’ or ‘I am dying’).


The opposite of *ya is *za, a little verb meaning ‘come to’ which also forms part of a tense indicator – the immediate future tense or ‘the time that is coming’, with a small modification (e.g. ngiZOfa – ‘I’m-coming-die’ or ‘I shall die’).

Finally we are left with my favourite of all of these – *zwa. This little fragment of language means ‘perceive’, and can describe any one of the five (or more) senses. It also means ‘understand’, ‘live or be alive’ and ‘be sound or in good condition’. Finally, with a reflexive, it means ‘to feel self-important’ (literally? to feel oneself). ;)mediate future tense or ‘the time that is coming’, with a small modification (e.g. ngiZOfa – ‘I’m-coming-die’ or ‘I shall die’).