Dambuza (my step-son) is learning the days of the week in isiZulu. So, in the heat of a late Friday evening, unable to sleep, we’re sitting on the floor of his room. And I have my left hand up, the palm towards me.

“So, siyaqala ngesandla sobunxele. We start with the left hand. Specifically, we start to count from what isiNgisi calls ‘the little finger’. And we count – ?”

“kunye, kubili, kuthathu, kune, kuhlanu”

“Ehhe! Yebo. Now, what does counting have to do with the days of the week?”

“I dunno.”

“ngesiZulu, four out of the seven days of the week are named using numbers – uLwesibili, uLwesithathu, uLwesine, and uLwesihlanu.”

“I can hear the -bili, -thathu, -ne and -hlanu in there. What does the ‘Lwesi’ bit mean?”

“Well, it’s two things: the lwa- is different from the -isi- part. The isi- makes the number into a position or ordinal number – ‘the second’ is ‘isibili’, ‘the third’ is ‘isithathu’, ‘the fourth’ is ‘isine’ and ‘the fifth’ is ‘isihlanu’. The lwa- part is from another word entirely, u:suku. Are you following?”

“Yebo. The isi- part makes it a position-number. So what does u:suku mean?”

“U:suku means ‘a day’. In full, it’s uLUsuku – that’s important, because otherwise you’d be wondering where the -LWA- bit comes from. Lwa- means ‘the-ULU-noun-belonging-to-x’. In this case, it means ‘the-day-belonging-to-x’.”

“Is it like i:gama LAmi? the-name belonging-to-me?”

“Yes. There the full form of i:gama is iLIgama, and so the bit showing belonging is LA.”

“Okay. So the days of the week mean ‘the-day-belonging-to-the-second’, ‘the-day-belonging-to-the-third’, like that?”

“Yebo! Nakho-ke! You’ve got it. A cleaner translation would be ‘the second day’, ‘the third day’, etcetera.”

“So that’s four of the seven, Tuesday to Friday. What about Monday, Saturday and Sunday?”

“Their names are umSombuluko, the day of unrolling; umGqibelo, the day of covering over, of burial and completion and weddings; and finally i:Sonto, from the Afrikaans ‘Sondag’ or English ‘Sunday’.”

“I like ‘the day of unrolling’.”

“It’s cool, hey? The days of the week in English are all taken from the names of Gods, whether Roman or Norse. isiZulu  didn’t have weeks, but they did have a complex lunar calendar”

“A calendar that went by the moon?”

“Yes, just like ours is based on the sun. Do you know how many moons there are in a solar year?”

“12?”

“No. 13. My lucky number. I’ll explain them to you next time. They all have cool stories as part of them. Now it’s time for bed. Lala kahle, Dambuza.”

“You too, Cullen. Thanks.”

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