For those of you reading this who know what Noun Classes are in terms of isiZulu, you can skip the next paragraph. For the rest of you, read on. For a list of the different blogs dealing with specific nouns in each isigaba, go here.

Many languages classify nouns. Indo-European languages like German, Latin, Sanskrit and Greek classify things according to whether they are masculine, feminine or neuter. Other language families classify according to different criteria – there is a class of nouns reserved for long wooden objects in certain Aboriginal Australian languages, into which the word for ‘aeroplane’ fits seamlessly. Where English is satisfied with using a single word, ‘it’, to refer to any thing that isn’t human, isiZulu has 7 different versions of ‘it’ in singular and plural (the number varies according to which 19th century linguist you follow, but there are basically 8 in total in modern isiZulu). A thing is not just a thing – it belongs to any of the 8 classes into which nouns are divided in isiZulu, characterised by a specific noun prefix for each class.

The noun classes are usually taught on a ‘memorise each word and don’t ask questions’ basis – which is a primary reason why people give up here. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been a sustained attempt to develop a classificatory key for understanding WHY nouns are in those specific classes. This is one of many quests I am currently on – to find out what the metaphors are behind each of the noun classes.

My quest has many wrong turns, many dead ends, and much puzzlement, but the ideas are beginning to crystallise. There are two things which act as keys to understanding what inclusion in a specific noun class means – the way that stems in isiZulu are used in different noun classes to differentiate between related concepts, and the amazing etymological work done by the linguists of the last two centuries working on the Bantu language family. I list here each of the izigaba zamabizo, together with a description of the sort of nouns included in them (mostly in order to act as proofs for my hypothesis). This is a work in progress, and any help would be much appreciated.

1. Humans (umu- & aba-)

This is the easiest one – none of the nouns in this noun class stand for anything other than human beings. Some of the key nouns here are umuntu (person), umlungu (white person), umbhali (writer) etc. If you want to construct the name of someone who does a certain thing as their profession, you add um- to the verb stem and suffix -i (umfundi, umshayeli, umthengi etc.)

1a. Names and Kin (u- & o-)

This one is slightly trickier, but the governing idea is that the words here are names. These are mostly for people and family members – ubaba (my father), umama (my mother), ugogo (grandmother), udokotela (doctor), uthisha (teacher) – but there are also borrowed names for things – ubhanana (banana), ubhatata (sweet potato), ushukela (sugar) and utamatisi (tomato).

2. Simple Solids (umu- & imi-)

This noun class is usually called the Rivers and Trees class, primarily because almost all the names for trees and rivers belong here, as well as the word for River (umfula) and Tree (umuthi). However there are other nouns here which are not rivers or trees – umuzi (homestead), umsindo (sound), umhlaba (land), umzimba (body), umbono (opinion), umcabango (thought) etc. With a more complete survey, it appears that these nouns are regarded as generic elements, like features of a landscape.

3. Simple Fluids (ili- & ama-)

This seems like a very strange label to give to a noun class, but it isn’t the first attempt – this has been called the ‘Round, Old and Borrowed’ noun class, as well as the ‘Round and Old’ noun class. neither of those actually work, and so they were discarded. The new label refers to the fact that the nouns in this class tend to have the following characteristics: they are regarded as a single homogenous substance, acting like a fluid in that they can expand or contract (or be filled and emptied, increased and decreased, be bigger or smaller) in the same way as amanzi (water), amandla (power), and amafutha (oil). Some interesting extensions of this idea are the words for men and chiefs – amakhosi and amadoda – which are regarded as a homogenous fluid-type mass. Other words in this class include ilanga (the sun), ithemba (hope), itshe (a stone),  isondo (a tyre) etc.

4. Complex Solids (isi- & izi-)

You could also call this the ‘modified things’ noun class, since each of the nouns has undergone either physical or metaphysical modification from an original subtance or root or concept. Into this noun class fall the nouns for hand (isandla), shoe (isicathulo), bag (isikhwama), human culture (isintu), an isangoma, a meal (isidlo), a fool (isilima) and an old woman (isalukazi). The three words for people in this list are strange, especially if you glance up to the umu- or human noun class. The reason why they aren’t in that noun class is because these names are descriptive, crafted to resemble the thing they describe – an isangoma is ‘the thing that is like a drum’, an isilima is ‘the farming-type person’ or ‘country bumpkin’, and an isalukazi is (most probably) ‘the female who weaves at home’. In fact, most derogatory or descriptive names for people, and many nicknames, are found in this noun class.

5. Seasonal (in- & izin-) 

Almost every single word for common indigenous animals is in this noun class – inkomo (cow), inja (dog), indlovu (elephant), ingulube (pig), indlulamithi (giraffe), inyoni (bird), inyoka (snake) etc. However there are also many words for people here – inkosi (chief, king, lord), indoda (man, husband), intombi (girl, girlfriend), insizwa (bachelor), intandane (orphan) and inyanga (traditional healer), imbongi (praise-singer) and intatheli (reporter) to name just a few. So why are there people in the same class as animals?

I have a theory. I think that the first few words moved into this category because the people were regarded as something other than simple ‘humans-doing-actions’ – they all occupy a hierarchical or culturally relevant position in society, and are almost all connected with rituals connected with certain life events – coming-of-age (intombi is linked to the verb for menstruation, indoda is linked to the verb for ejaculation), spiritual investiture in a traditional position (inyanga and inkosi), as well as others. For this reason they are linked metaphorically to the animal totems that existed (and in some cases still do exist) alongside the ancestral systems of belief – and possibly to the practices (like the trance-dance) adopted by the amaNguni from the indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of Southern Africa. This practice can also be seen from the way that Isilo samabandla (the king of the amaZulu) is referred to as ‘ingonyama’ (lion).

They no longer defy understanding (I hope) – the common thread to the nouns in this class is that they are either seasonal or phasic (phase-defined), or they represent concepts regarded as occurring in a certain season or appointed time (a phase). Think about it – the people in this class are all defined by the fact that their positions depend on certain life-phases or seasons, and they are being defined according to the season or phase. Indoda is ‘fertile male’, intombi is ‘fertile female’.

This new understanding actually makes the animals here make more sense too – all animals are seasonal, in their breeding patterns, migrations and availability. The animals in this class are generic, too – often with no specification as to gender or sub-species. Those specifications often result in the words being in different noun classes, like the ili-, umu- or isi- ones.

In terms of the other nouns, there will usually be some aspect of cyclicality or seasonality to them. {perhaps this still needs more work…}. See if this hypothesis works for the following words: indlela, inkathi, ingqondo, inhlakanipho, inkohlakalo and inkinga.  

6. Complex Fluids (ulu- & izin-)

Where the last noun class was tricky in the extreme, this one is fairly easy – nouns in this class can be defined (for the most part) as ‘the complex products of unseen and often chemical processes’ – such as ubisi (milk), ulazi (cream), uju (honey), uthando (love), usizi (grief) and ukhetho (an election). There are also a few animals here (ufudu is a tortoise, and ukhozi is an eagle), but this noun class is mostly reserved for non-living things.

7. Essences (ubu-)

This is also very easy – the nouns in this class have been boiled down, distilled, or reduced to the point where only the essence remains – ubuhle (beauty), ububi (evil), utshwala (alcohol), and ubuhlungu (pain) are just some of the many mostly abstract nouns in this class.

8. Actions (uku-)

In case you weren’t confused already, every single verb in isiZulu can also act as a noun – much like gerunds in English (writing, driving, eating etc.). These nouns then denote action, complete with conjugation, implication and object of that action. Some examples include ukudla (the eating, food), ukufunda (the learning, education, reading) and more extended ones like ukungasahlali (the-no-longer-sitting, the fact that someone is no longer resident at a place).

And that brings us to the end of the Noun Classes. If I’ve confused you, I apologise. If you can suggest refinements and alterations to the list, let me know.