Look up the following words in a good isiZulu-English dictionary (I’m very subtly suggesting Doke & Vilakazi):

i(li)butho; isihlobo; inyoka; inyoni (both under nyo-); umbala (under ba-); umkhonto; inja (under nja); & isiphoso

Before I save you the trouble and give you the answers, let me tell you why you meed to look them up. They are nodes.

Node is from the Latin nōdus, and was originally gnodus. It is related to the Sanskrit root gandh- or gadh-, meaning ‘grasp’. It is of the same family as the Greek verb khandánō, meaning ‘hold’, and the noun gnáthos, meaning ‘a jaw’. Latin uses the original root elsewhere, in words like pre-hend-o. In German the word is Knoten, and in English it is ‘a knot’. In Latin it means the same thing, with the added definitions of ‘girdle’, ‘knob’, ‘fold’, ‘nodule of metal’, ‘callous’, ‘the four points in the heavens where the seasons begin’, ‘a band’or ‘bond’ and, finally, ‘a knotty point, a difficulty, an impediment’.

The word ‘node’ could be called ‘a node’ – many languages have taken a long hard look at it and developed different but related understandings of the world that in one way or other use the basic idea of the word. Words have grown from it. Other words have been added to it.

But a node is not only a single thing that has grown or swelled. It’s a knot of many strands. A twisted involuted irregularity made up of many different words for the same thing, like a weaver’s nest or an ant heap or a ship wreck. When you start unravelling or examining the one thing, you realise that the idea is a whole lot more complex than you initially thought, and that there are many parts to it.

The 8 words above are vocabulary nodes – they represent 8 (out of countless) areas where isiZulu has a degree of specialised taxonomical precision that puts many other languages in the shade. I’m going to look at each of them briefly here:

i(li)butho: this word means ‘regiment’, ‘solider’ and ‘member of the same age-grade’, and is derived from the verb ‘butha’ meaning ‘to gather’ and ‘to recruit’. The reason why this is a node is because of the 96 different names of the regiments of various izimpi included under its definition.

isihlobo: this means ‘relative’ and ‘blood-relation’, derived from the verb ‘hloba’ meaning ‘to put on finery’, ‘to sprout new leaves’ and ‘become curdled’. It’s a common-enough node in all languages, but isiZulu has 115 different terms just for blood-relatives!

inyoka: snake. It’s a word which means the same thing virtually unchanged in many sub-Saharan languages, and is one of the 50 ancient words discussed somewhere else in this blog. It’s important to be exact when warning or seeking medical attention following a snakebite – 54 different names in this node.

inyoni: a bird, a bird’s feather, or ‘anxiety, nervousness and mental derangement’ – another long history there, but suffice to say that there are 350 names for different birds in isiZulu, all intricately descriptive and evocative.

umbala: a colour, derived from the ur-Bantu root for ‘speck’ or ‘mark’, is a node having over 300 different words in it (though to be fair many of them are related to cattle).

umkhonto: as in ‘wesizwe’, a spear can apparently have 15 different forms, all of which do the same thing.

inja: because a dog is never just a dog, there are 20 different terms for a word that also means ‘a low-class, inferior person’ or ‘a person of low, coarse habits’ and ‘a species of hairy caterpillars’.

and finally…

isiphoso: an enchantment, a bewitchment, a hypnotism or charm, of which 77 are tentatively listed followed by an etc.

So go look them up, unravel the knots, and find a new side to isiZulu.