I’ve been wanting to write about these for a very long while already. They have always fascinated me, and I believe that they are the heart of isiZulu. 
For all of you who don’t know what an ideophone is, I’ll explain here. For those of you that know already, proceed to the next paragraph. 

Let’s start with definitions. Isenzukuthi means the-complex-solid-thing-that-uses-ukuthi. That’s as clear as mud so far. So we must look at ukuthi in order to understand these strange beasts. Ukuthi is, as Vilakazi and Doke put it, a defective monosyllabic verb. If there were a Bedlam for Zulu words, thi would have a padded cell and a straight-jacket, along with azi and sho. This verb forms half of the Zulu arsenal for expressing speech (sho, on a thorazine drip in a neghbouring cell, is the other half). It magically opens a speech bubble in the sentence, into which can be inserted any sound, whether uttered by a human or non-human source. Most often, thi is followed by direct speeh, as well as by that which is perceived or thought. However, thi can also be followed by a sound-effect to capture a specific situation or action. 

Think of graphic novels – BAM! WOLOKOHLO

So an isenzukuthi forms part of that speech or sound bubble, following thi, using a sound to capture the essence of an action or state. Ideophone is from the Greek (of course, isn’t everything?), and means unique (or private) sound (or voice). It shares a lot with the word ideosyncratic, which is the best way to describe these things. Basically, isiZulu has a set of words which express a unique sound to mimic or capture an action or state or colour. 

“Ideophone: a word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, action, state, or intensity”

The izenzukuthi are not curiosities or genre-specific things in isiZulu. They go beyond the realm of creative story-telling or poetry. They are a part of everyday language. 

As a brief aside, let it be known that I am a strange beast – I enjoy reading the dictionary (in any language), and it is my custom to code as I read. I do so using nine different colours – Red for Astronomical Phenomena, Blue for Birds, Orange for Arthropods, Green for Botanical, Brown for Animalia, Light Blue for Marine Creatures, Pink for Relative Qualificatives, Black for Key Verb Stems and Purple for Ideophones. I do this not because I’m insane, but rather so that I can start to map the entire language. And it allows me to make statements such as the following:

There are precisely 100 ideophones beginning with the consonant m. From máka (denoting slapping someone in the face with an open palm) to mbrr (of birds flying) and mvénene (denoting tingling, or running at full speed), this is only one letter’s worth of ideophones. 

Q is even more of a goldmine for izenzukuthi – 113 are recorded in Vilakazi’s dictionary. It is unsurprising to me just how many of these creatures are formed from the click-consonants. If you have ever been a little child, or are currently a beatboxer, you’ll know how satisfying the clicks can be in expressing a variety of things. Q begins with qa (of sudden vision, of seeing something for the first time), moving through qángqalazi (of dying, coming fully into view, or rolling), qéngelele (of standing out, being conspicuous, of smartness or ability), qhámu (of unexpected appearance; of coming suddenly into view), qíngqo (of suddenly springing to life, as a bird when stunned), qóngqo (of reaching the summit or making a knocking noise), and ending with qwíbi (of being alone, single). 

Without getting too bogged down in each and every letter in the alphabet, the last thing I want to talk about here is the way that isiZulu uses ideophones to create new words. There are 22 letters for which isiZulu has ideophones (none for a, e, i, o, r or u, plus one for bh), and this is not yet even the most astounding thing about them – any given ideophone can automatically and regularly give rise to entire lineages of nouns in any of the 8 izigaba, as well as over 4 different types of verbs. That means that they are even part of what are considered to be ordinary parts of speech, like superheroes with their underpants on the inside. 

Let’s just look at one ideophone and its children – ndúlu. It denotes two things: of acting in a dazed or stupid manner, as when giddy, or of streaming out. 

It gives rise to the following nouns:

  •  isindulundulu – a person who acts in an aimless and stupid manner
  •  ubundulundulu – stupidity, aimless or confused action
  •  induluzane – an unenlightened or ignorant person; a person of unsound mind

In addition to these it is the source of four verbs:

  • ukunduluka – to stream out, come out in a stream
  • ukundulula – to send out in a stream or drive off in numbers; to obtain in large quanitities
  • ukunduluza – to act as though dazed or stupid; to look about as if at a loss what to do
  • ukundundulula – to send out in a stream; to obtain in large quantities; to play a trick on someone such as sending them on a senseless journey.

This is just one ideophone. I don’t know (yet) exactly how many there are, but it is my opinion that the majority of nouns and verbs in isiZulu come from them. Which means that rather than treating them as curiosities, they should be taught as early and as constantly as possible in the classroom. 

If you have any special requests for ideophones – your favourite one, or for a description of those relating to a certain action – comment on this blog. 

For now, that’s me done. All that’s left to say is khúmu.