When it comes to this word, there are two interesting aspects – the way that the noun is used relative to the creation myths of the amaZulu, and the link with the verb *hlangana. The pictures created by these two aspects are intriguing and evocative – you’ll see why.

At the heart of today’s word route follows the root *hlang, which makes up nouns exclusively in its simple form:

i(li)hlanga is a harvested field in which the cornstalks and stubble are still standing, or a ‘wasteful giver’

inhlanga is a thicket of reeds, an incision (for medicinal purposes, such as cupping blood), an incised pattern (whether on the face, body, or pottery), a pattern in beadwork and (finally) a trademark or brand

u(lu)hlanga carries on the meanings of both, in that it is ‘dry stalk (of mealies, sorghum etc.)’, a ‘reed or reed snuffbox’, a tube (term applied to the throat passage, a pipe, etc), the ‘original stem or stock’, the ‘ancestry, genealogy or dynasty’ of a person, or a tribal or medical incision.

Finally, we get to umhlanga (the much mis-pronounced um-shlah-ngah of the annual visitors to the KZN coast) – a reed or reeds, or a reed bed or reedy placy in a river.

The picture from these words is quite clear – the shifting whispering pattern of jagged cutting leaves and standing stalks, the voices of empty reeds when the wind plays in them, the place from which the tall brown men and women of the amaZulu people stepped and divided to fill their portion of the earth.

The picture deepens when you look at the verb, *hlangana, meaning:

a) to come together, meet together, assemble

b) to meet with, come across, come upon

c) to join, unite, come together, close up (as a healing wound does)

d) to be in close contact, be thick together

e) to be complete

f) to be in agreement, fit in, correspond, associate together

g) to join in conflict, encounter one another

h) to have sex

When you look at this verb in the light of the meanings of its root (excuse the pun), it is clear that the verbal metaphors link to the idea of the reeds as the place of union, and the images of people as reeds broken off from that single stem, meeting again to reform the clumps from which they were broken (see the Word Route for Dábu).

This is truly one of the more central isiZulu roots to remember.