There are three ideophones involved in the fullest understanding of both the general idea and the two distinctions of the concept of ’emotion’ in isiZulu – háwu, hawu (6-3.3-9) and hawu (6-3.9).

Háwu! is an ideophone denoting emotion. It gives rise to all of the different nominal (2) and verbal (4) derivations dealing with emotion.

Verbs include hawuka (feel emotion, e.g. of jealousy, envy, sympathy, sorrow, pity), hawula (excite with deep emotion, transport with emotion, charm, hypnotize), hawuza (praise, applaud, relate the praises of something, outline the news, give a précis, milk quickly).

Of these, one has an applied form found often in Christian settings: hawukela means ‘feel emotion towards’, ‘pity, sympathize with, be sorry for’, and ‘envy, be jealous for’. Sihawukele means ‘have mercy on us’ as part of the Mass and in various prayers in various denominations of Christianity. 

Of nouns there are only two – isihawu (a strong emotional feeling; pity, compassion, sympathy; motherly tenderness; sentiment) and umhawu (emotional feeling of sympathy or pity; sentiment; jealousy, covetousness, envy; indignation, resentment).

Looking at these lists of meaning, it might seem difficult to determine exactly which emotion one was talking about – pity? envy? motherly tenderness? compassion?

But this is all cleared up when you look at the two other ideophones – hawu (6-3.3-6) and hawu (6-3.9).

Your first question might look something like this: “Why have they labeled the &%# words as though they were radioactive isotopes??”

The things in the brackets are indicators of TONE. This paragraph might result in brain-melting for people unfamiliar with tone, so proceed with caution. Tone is ‘the musical modulation of the voice in speech’ (Vilakazi & Doke, 1958). In isiZulu,

there are two types of tone: level tones and gliding tones. When using a level tone, one musical note is struck, and that pitch is maintained as long as the syllable lasts. With gliding tones the syllable commences on a certain musical note and glides to another before the end of the syllable. Gliding tones are, in Zulu, of three types: rising tones, falling tones, and rising-falling tones. Rising tones glide up the scale, falling tones glide down the scale, while rising-falling tones commence at a certain musical note, glide up to a higher, and then before the completion of the syllable glide down again to a lower; rising-falling tones are only found on long syllables. 

That last sentence made me feel slightly better, wandering out from the labyrinthine definitions in 1958 classically-trained English – until I realised that one of these was a long syllable. Damn.

The definition continues, in beautifully detailed fashion:

The Zulu speaker employs a nine-tone system; that is to say, his range of tones in speech covers nine different pitches. These nine tone points cannot be indicated in musical notation, for they depend on relative and not absolute height. The intervals between the notes are the important things. The whole range is generally slightly above an octave, with a man much lower in scale than with a woman. … The highest tone being 1 and the lowest 9.

Ok. So there are 9 different points on the tone-scale. What matters is the interval between them. 1 is high, and 9 is low.

So the difference between hawu (6-3.3-6) and hawu (6-3.9) is this:

Both start with the same glide, from the lower mid-tone to the higher mid-tone, then pause there. The first then glides back to the lower mid-tone, while the second jumps to the lowest of all. 

This difference in tonal expression represents the difference between an interjection of ‘pained surprise’ or ‘strong dissaproval’ and one of ‘joyful surprise’. Of interest here is that the ideophone I started with, háwu, has a tone signature of 8.8-9 – meaning that it doesn’t vary too much at all.

It is simply emotion, without inflection to the positive or the negative. Háwu.