I arrive at my lesson a little early, and catch my student unawares. While he gets his mind in order, and I unpack my stuff, I offer him tea. Yes, I know I’m the guest – but I make myself at home wherever I go. Boarding-school vibes.

I say: ufuna nhloboni yethiye?

He understands the bread of the sentence, but not the meat. The word ‘nhloboni’ is incomprehensible to him. So we embark on an umbhudulo. Having translated my question (“you-want sort-what of-tea?” or “what sort of tea do you want?”), and while making him some red-bush tea, I start with the verb.

ukuhloba – to put on finery, dress up, adorn oneself, attire oneself; to sprout or put forth shoots; to become curdled.

We explore the rest of the umbhudulo once seated, with Vilakazi and Doke open in front of us, starting with i(li)hlobo. Of course, like i(li)bele (I owe you a blog about this word – it’s fascinating), there are two very different tonal patterns (and thus two different words) spelt in exactly the same way. Here we go:

i(li)hlobo (3.2.9.9) [no plural] – Summer, the summer season; early summer mealies or pumpkins.

i(li)hlobo (2.6.3-8.9) [plural amahlobo] – article of finery for adornment; something fashionable.

We discuss the fact the the first word is more common, and that it has one of the more regular tonal patterns for nouns – rising initially and then bottoming out on the last two syllables. We also look at the fact that the word for Summer comes from the fact that the trees have put on all their finery (after the winter nakedness), and as such one type of tree can be told from another. And then we shift, to look at the complex solid hloba thing – isihlobo.

isihlobo – a relative, a blood relation {113 specific terms for relatives}

A relative is a complex solid because there are a number of constructed modes of behaviour involved in being related. It really is complex, as you can see from the myriad of highly specific terms for different family members. But what does it have to do with decorating? Basically, it’s the group of people who decorate themselves the way that you do. And this comes out in the other nouns from this isiqu:

inhlobo – a species, kind, class, denomination, sample; a style or method

u(lu)hlobo – a genus, species or breed; a kind, sort or variety; a nationality, a race

umhlobo – a friend, an acquaintance; a relative, kinsman or relation; a race of mankind, a nationality

ubuhlobo – friendship; relationship

If you look at all of these through the lens of the izigaba zamabizo, with the meanings of ukuhloba in mind, it makes a bit more sense:

inhlobo Рthe seasonal / varying similarly decorated thing

u(lu)hlobo – the complex fluid / mutable similarly decorated thing

umhlobo – the simple solid similarly decorated thing

ubuhlobo – the essence of being decorated (in a similar way)

It’s at this point that I point out a small oddity in this list – the fact the umhlobo is not in the human noun class at all, but is rather a non-human solid. It has an imi- plural, imihlobo – like a few other notables such as umlozi and umkhovu. I advise him to be careful when working with the word, and avoid humanising it.

We practise using the various words for another ten minutes, briefly look at the umbhudulo for ukuhlela (to be unpacked another time) and then shift gears and begin on passives. They take us the remaining half an hour, and then I enter the darkness for the final leg of my journey home, satisfied by this exploration of a single root.

Feel free to use this umbhudulo to explain the isiqu HLOB* to anyone who cares to hear. I hope it helps. If you have any suggestions for other imibhudulo, let me know in the comments.