WARNING / ISEXWAYISO – NSFW / AkuVunyelwe emSebenzini
In teaching someone a language, there are those discussions which step directly into (or onto) taboos – words for different forms of sex, heinous insults involving mothers and their pudenda, and this one, about excrement. There is no way to avoid the taboos, and I think that avoiding them does the student a great disservice. After all, if native speakers know these words and are prepared to use them in various situations, then there is no reason why a second-language speaker shouldn’t know them and learn to use them appropriately, or humorously, or as an insult.
We were talking about lies, as we often do. Most of my classes know the basic way to say “you’re lying” ngesiZulu:
ngamanga aluhlaza! they-are-lies that-are-green
uqamb’ amanga! you-invent lies
But then one of my senior students asked the inevitable question:
“Mnumzane, how do you say to someone “you’re talking shit” or “bullshit!”?”
And so we have this blog about the mysteries of the great kaka.
My immediate response to him was to say that you would use the following
ngamasimba! they-are-pieces-of-shit / they-are-droppings
unamasimba! you-plus-shit / you have shit
Amasimba is an interesting word. It’s a quantitative plural (meaning that there is almost always a plurality of shit, never only one single piece of it), and has no relationship to the more famous kiSwahili word “Simba” meaning lion – which was rather unfortunately given to SA’s brand of potato chips.
I told the students that it wasn’t polite to use the word, but that was somewhat lost on them as they experimented with their new-found vloekwoord. I tried to intellectualise the experience by introducing the following range of meanings:
1. (in singular) a single pat of cow dung; a single evacuation of the bowels
2. (in plural) excreta, ordure, excrements (as of a human being, a dog, a fowl etc.)
3. (in plural) discreditable acts
4. amasimba enyanga (back-bones of cuttle-fish or sepia)
When I got to that last one, I asked them why they thought cuttlefish would be called “moon crap”. They laughed when they figured it out.
Then one of the isinguni-speaking class-members suggested a few other words, which led to more discussion: uthuvi, indle, ubulongwe, ukubhosha and ukunya. yoh.
So I did the thing I do, unpacking the meanings behind each word.
The first one, uthuvi, is another word for amasimba, and is a really ancient one. It’s one of the few words from the uthu- noun class that no longer exists in isiZulu. So the root is actually -fi or -vi. Regardless of the linguistics, here’s what it means:
Human excrement; excement of dogs, fowls etc. (but not of cattle, buck etc.)
So what we’re talking about is squishy carnivore excrement. Yum. And then there’s a related noun, isithuvi, which means:
The place outside the village where people relieve themselves.
This idea of going outside the village to “relieve oneself” is a key part of the next word in our scatological expedition, indle, occurring only in the singular:
derived from the Ur-Bantu word -nga, meaning ‘outside’ or ‘exterior’
1. the outside or surroundings of a village or kraal; wilderness, lonely place
indle yomuzi ijwayele ukugaqanyelwa yizitha – the surroundings of a village are usually the abode of enemies
2. the place where people relieve themselves (originally a bush outside the village)
3. a lavatory
This is the word at the heart of the locative adverb “phandle”, meaning “outside”. There’s a new twist to this word then – place where the shit is.
Inside-outside is a common binary in many languages, echoed in imagery I’ve seen elsewhere – Hestia/Hermes is the archetype for the distinction between home and the outer world, between the warm hearth of home and the cairn of stones to guide your way in the wilderness. In isiZulu, the opposite of phandle is phakathi. When it’s made into a noun in the simple solid class, it becomes umphakathi – the community, the in-group.
When the adverb phandle is changed into a noun, it is most commonly found as amaphandle – the suburbs, the outskirts of the main village or kraal, the people who live in the suburbs and have not yet acquired local customs. As emaphandleni, this word is similar to emaphethelweni and emajukujukwini – in the far-off margins of the world. Marginalising someone is akin to sending them into the toilet.
We then looked at ubulongwe. It is almost never used in insults, and here’s why – it’s useful, and it is produced by cattle. While you ponder the strangeness of those two statements, let’s look at the meaning of the word:
etymology: the Ur-Bantu verb -longa, meaning “to accumulate”
Fresh dung of cattle and other large cordiverous animals
ubulongwe bokusinda – dung for floor-smearing
It’s in the essential noun class, like beer and grass and humanity. The stem in a different noun class explains further uses for this amazing substance:
dry cake of cattle-dung (as is used for fuel). cf. ishwaqa
ilongwe lonwali – fat-impregnated dung used as a torch for lighting
So that answers the question of dung’s usefulness, and part of the reason why the word isn’t used in insults. But what about the second reason I gave?
If the place to relieve nature is on the outskirts of society, at the margins of the home unit or village, the opposite is true of the place where cattle are kept. The isibaya is at the heart of the umuzi, and is the centre around which the life of the place revolves. The cattle represent the spiritual heart of the amaZulu, and so anything related to them is almost incapable of being used as an insult. The society of the amaZulu in many ways mirrors the society of the herd, with its polygamous bulls and its fierce protective instinct in defence of the collective.
The journey doesn’t end there, though. In class we ended up with the contrast between two key verbs: ukubhosha and ukunya. The first must not be confused with ukuboshwa, meaning “be arrested” – although one might suffer from ukubhosha at the thought of ukuboshwa.
Here’s what it means:
to pass excrement
to go to stool
According to Vilakazi, this is “a politer term than nya”. It also seems to have more to do with the odours associated with defecation – isibhoshi denotes “a strong, disagreeable smell or stench”.
I remember being a little boy at political meetings, my brain still confusing the b and bh ngesiZulu, and wondering why all these grey-headed men were talking about people crapping.
Which leaves -nya. It’s one of a handful of verbs in isiZulu that consist only of one syllable. You can read more about them here.
Let’s take a closer look at the verb:
Pass excreta; relieve oneself
N.B. it is more polite to use the phrase ukuya ngaphandle
ukunyiwa yinyoni – to be solitary and destitute; lit. to be excreted by a bird
yanya yadla – he keeps returning to his evil life; lit. the dog excreted and ate again
ukunya izindoni namakhiwane – to be an inveterate liar; lit. to excrete waterboom fruit and figs
I’m sure you can see that this is probably the closest to the English verb “to shit”. The idioms are graphic and interesting – the first one is a personal favourite. As usual, this verb has a whole lot of nouns related to it:
cruelty, callousness, hardness of heart, lack of mercy, harshness
a species of evil-smelling plants, papaver somnifera and cannabis sativa
desire to exert oneself in order to make up for loss
feeling of vengeance; vindictiveness
(plural only) the belly or underparts of a snake
(plural only) private or unpleasant things
So it’s definitely as extensive as the English verb:
He’s being a real shit / She’s so shitty to me
This shit really stinks (if you can’t connect the dots, look up the Latin plant names)
To give a shit
I could go on, but suffice to say that this verb is quite applicable in many instances. It’s used as a threat by warriors and soccer stars and politicians (in the causative form, nyisa) and is always dirty.
Which brings me to the title of this post – isihlahla (k)asinyelwa. It’s an isaga, and it really works well when paired with the Boromir meme. It is used to express something similar to the English ideas of “don’t shit where you eat” and “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.
A tree is not shat upon
One does not (simply) shit on a tree.