There are two very common verbs in isiZulu which present a number of problems to first-time speakers – ukukhohlwa and ukukholwa. As you can see, the first problem is that they look and sound very similar to one another. For those of you with a bit of isiZulu under your belts, you will probably also be able to notice that both verbs are technically passive in form. The passive voice is always a mission to teach in my school classes, mainly because English speakers are extremely lazy in their understanding of voice.

I always point out to them that they should count their lucky stars, because at least they don’t have Latin’s deponent verbs or Greek’s Middle voice to deal with. Generally this information leaves a lot of blank faces in the classroom, so I swiftly move on and run through some of the stock explanations I have for the phenomenon of Voice in language.

The interesting thing in this case is that these two verbs are not in any way irregular. They behave the same way that passives always behave in isiZulu – followed by the copulative form of the agent, with a subject concord for the subject. The difference here is that these two verbs are active in their English translation.

Enough preamble – let’s jump in and see where the imibhudulo lead us.

First – ukukhohlwa. It’s most common meaning is ‘to forget’ or ‘to overlook’ something. Those are pretty active things in English – ‘I forgot my shoes at home’ and ‘I will overlook your behaviour just this once” are both statements firmly in the active voice – yet isiZulu views the act of forgetting as a passive. But a passive of what verb? Ukukhohla.

This verb has two meanings – ‘to escape or slip from the memory’ and ‘to puzzle or perplex’. It’s most often found with the causative impambosi, as ukukhohlisa, where it has the meaning of ’cause to escape the memory’, ’cause to puzzle’ or ‘deceive, cheat, mislead, delude, beguile’. With the neuter impambosi, as ukukhohlakala, it offers two more meanings: firstly, ‘get forgotten or be overlooked’ and secondly ‘get corrupted, become demoralized or contaminated’. Sadly, this last impambosi is a frequent player in today’s news reports, along with its cognate noun inkohlakalo (corruption). So the passive of all of that means “to be escaped from the memory” or “to be puzzled” which then means “to forget”.

Now let’s have a look at ukukholwa. In its first meaning, its passivity is clear – ‘to be satisfied’ or ‘to be contented’. But this first meaning is not its most common one. The second one is ‘to believe in something’, ‘have confidence in something or someone’, or ‘rely on or trust in something or someone’. Again, this second set of meanings is very active in English (though in other languages the act of believing or trusting is quite often modified from more usual active or direct speech).

So what does the active form mean then? Ukukhola means ‘to satisfy or content’ in its primary meaning, with no innuendo spared in Vilakazi and Doke’s example sentences:

uNomona uyangikhola (Jealous-girl gives me satisfaction)
Iyangikhola le ntombi (This is the sort of girl I like)

For some reason, I now have Mick Jagger in my head, lips flapping and hips jerking, screaming “Ngingekuthola…. ukukhola”. Moving on…

Ukukhola also means “give enough to” or “tire”. The example sentence here is less suggestive:

Lo mfana ungikholile (This boy has given me sufficient trouble)

Like ukukhohla, ukukhola has a few izimpambosi that occur quite regularly – ukukholakala (be satisfied, be trustworthy) and ukukholisa (give trouble to, cause to be satisifed, do generally) – but it is the passive we’re focusing on today. Ukukholwa therefore means “be satisfied or contented with the message the missionary is feeding you” or “be given enough of the gospel” or “be made confident in the message of original sin and the triune god” – because this verb is associated most with the spread of Christianity among the amaZulu.

You see, the first Zulu converts to Christianity were called amakholwa – those who believe. That was the spin put on the word by the missionaries, but the fact is that they were not initially well-regarded. Calling someone ikholwa would have had similar connotations to my Irish Catholic ancestors being ridiculed for ‘taking the soup’ and converting to Protestantism – their stomachs ‘were satisfied’ and thus there souls were dragged along for the ride. In the case of the amakholwa, it is documented that only refugees and people too weak to argue against the obscurities and mysteries offered by the various Christian denominations were keen to convert. By as late as 1890, only 10% of all amaZulu had converted to Christianity. The reason for this is that the spirituality of the amaZulu was incredibly strong, localised as it was in the veneration of the ancestors and the belief in the continued participation of the dead in the lives of their descendants.

But I digress. NgesiZulu, forgetting is not an active thing, and neither is believing. They are both things suffered by the subject of the verb, but done by something or someone else. This, to me at any rate, is very significant.

This is the point in the blog where I really push the boat out (hopefully not too far out) and make a theoretical suggestion – I think that the two roots of these verbs, KHOHL and KHOL, show a fundamental link between the two concepts. The first might generically mean “undergo a negative change in mental state after being offered something” while the second might mean “undergo a positive change in mental state after being offered something”. Which would mean that deception, forgetting, corruption, belief and satisfaction all form an intense knot of meaning in isiZulu.

What do you think? Uyangikholwa na? Noma kunento engiyikhohliwe?