I found this one while translating, as usual, and noted it down while I searched for ‘intimacy’ and ‘alienation’ (it’s a marriage preparation course – interesting linguistically because so many of the English words relating to romance and love and relationships are based on only two or three roots in isiZulu).

When I came to it again, and I began noting down its twists and mutations, I realised that I might just have a new favourite ideophone.

This one, pronounced le-eh (the ‘e’ in isiZulu is the phonetic one, varying only in length of pronunciation) and not like Leigh, is:

[an ideophone] of smooth, slippery surface; of slipping, sliding, of flowing



of falling gradually, gently (as spider, waterfall)


of drowsing, feeling sleepy, gradually going off to sleep (generally       triplicated)

It not only has three related meanings, it also gives rise to 11 nouns and 3 verbs – so it’s been very busy, for a word of its size.

But it’s not only in the definition that there is beauty – the example sentences for each meaning are also wonderfully descriptive:

amadwala eziwa uwabuka athi lee econsa amanzi

the rocks on the riverbanks, you see them slippery with oozing water

uju luvuza luthi lee emaqeqebeni

the honey oozes and falls gradually from the comb

kuhle ngisukume, umzimba uthi lee lee lee

I ought to get up because my body is getting very drowsy

They’re not particularly practical (except maybe the last one, where the action described would bring us many medals if they were to make parliamentary sleeping an Olympic sport), but they get across the idea of the slow drips and slips and nods that characterise each sentence.

Among the derivations are some wonderful insults calling out to be used:

u(lu)lelemba is a dull, sleepy-looking person

umlelemu is a lifeless, sleepy person


umlembelele is a lazy, indolent person

But the most resonant derivation of the ideophone is one of the izithakazelo of iNkosi Shaka kaSenzangakhona – iLembe eleqa amanye amalembe ngokukhalipha (the Blade who conquers other blades in terms of sharpness).

i(li)lembe is…

an obsolete term for igeja, a hoe


a hero

…and is derived from the Ur-Bantu word -lembe meaning an axe or a knife. But how is that linked to the slow, gentle ooze of the original ideophone?

ilembe is the thing that slips smoothly and swiftly through the bellies and bodies of enemies, the thing that then drips with their blood as it hangs from the hand of a hero having slain his rival.

And what would you do to soothe to sleep that rival’s son that night, as he cried for his father? You would leleza (speak gentle soothing words to comfort him and lull him off to sleep).

And as he drifted off to sleep, he would leza (fall down gradually, slide down, become lengthened downwards like a spider’s thread) into sleep.