This post is the second part in a series on gender or ubulili ngesiZulu. Please read the first part if you’re lost at any point.

The essential word for human is umuntu. Though it has a related connotation of African human, it is the most generic word. From it are derived the word for child (umntwana / small-human), as well as a host of other interesting words:

isintu – culture, and specifically African culture; African language, customs, food etc.

uluntu – population (in isiXhosa, this is the word for ‘the people’)

ubuntu – {do I really need to explain this?} human-ness, the essence of being a good human being in a human context.

In the same isigaba as umuntu, there are a number of words for specific humans, although these (mostly) actually have an altered prefix (u-) instead of umu-. These are actually names, in this case of family members. Chop off the u- and that’s what you call the person when you speak to them.

umama – my mother; a mother; any woman who is old enough to be your mother or who is your superior.

ubaba – my father; a father; any man who is old enough to be your father or who is your superior.

ugogo – a grandmother; any woman old enough to be your grandmother.

umkhulu* – a grandfather; any man old enough to be your grandfather.

udadewethu – my sister; any woman of your cohort or of equal status.

umfowethu* – my brother; any man of your cohort or of equal status.

umalumekazi – aunt (specifically mother’s side of the family)

umalume – uncle (specifically mother’s side of the family)

umkhwekazi* – mother-in-law (from the man’s perspective)

umukhwe* – father-in-law (from the man’s perspective)

umamezala – mother-in-law (from the woman’s perspective)

ubabezala – father-in-law (from the woman’s perspective)

umakoti – bride, newly married woman.

umkhwenyana* – groom, son-in-law.

There are a few more, but these will suffice for now. What you should have noticed is that they quite often come in pairs, much like the binary divisions evident in the first post on ubulili. These are gendered words. The second thing to notice is that the feminine words are, in two cases, derived from the masculine ones – thus umalume is an uncle, and umalumekazi is a female uncle; umukhwe is a father-in-law, and umkhwekazi is a female father-in-law. This pattern is often repeated in any discussion of gender roles. Another thing to notice is that the words are based in actual speech – so umakoti will call her father-in-law “Babezala”, whereas umkhwenyana will call his father-in-law “Mukhwe”.

But at least these words are all human. That’s one thing. So let’s go and look at the other, non-human, noun classes, using gender-roles and terms as a guide.

Firstly, the most popular of all the izigaba for nouns describing humans (apart from the first one, which we just looked at) is the ‘seasonal’ or ‘phasic’ one (aka NC 9/10, or in-/izin-). In here there are five main iziqu relating to gender, and four of them have a raft of derivations:


As mentioned before, this is a word for ‘man’ or ‘male human’, with an added connotation of ‘husband’ or ‘boyfriend’ when used possessively. It has no negative connotations. From it are derived two other words in this isigaba – indodana (small-man / son) and indodakazi (female-man / daughter). Once again, note the pattern of forming female terms from male ones. There is also one other word here – indodisisa (a real man).


As mentioned in the first post, this is a word meaning ‘fertile female human who has had an unbroken series of menstrual cycles’ – i.e. young unmarried (virginal) female human. It is also used as a pet-name for one’s daughter, and has the connotation of ‘girlfriend’ when used possessively. From it in this isigaba is derived the word intombazane (small-intombi / prepubescent girl).


This is a male bachelor, a young unmarried man who is mostly autonomous. I like to think the word is derived from the passive of siza (help), in that the guy is still being-helped by Mama and Baba on occasion, although I have no linguistic support for this opinion. Vilakazi gives the definition as “1. a young man approaching manhood; vigorous young man who has not yet assumed the head-ring; 2. a hornless ox or bull”. Bulls and cows feature highly in isiZulu as paragons of good behaviour, in contrast with goats (you’ll see what I mean in a moment). From this word is derived a relative stem, -nsizwa, meaning “fully developed; clear or bright; cloudless”, which is a little odd. The next two are also odd – insizwambuzi (lit. a goat-bachelor; an undersized youth or very short man) and insizwankomo (lit. a bovine-bachelor; a fine, strong, well-built young man). Goats are stunted and not particularly well-formed, whereas bovines are strong and majestic.


The word inkosi in itself is on the edge between a gender-term and a hierarchical term, but it almost always refers to a male ruler. It has a few meanings, which I’ll summarise here: a king or paramount chief; a term of respect (lord or sir); a Magistrate; (in plural) the spirits of the ancestors; the Lord (Christian Theological term); certain birds; an Ace in cards. From it are derived three other nouns – inkosana (little-inkosi – prince; first-born-son; term of respect when speaking to the son of an employer or superior; ‘klein-baas’), inkosikazi (female-inkosi – first wife; wife of inkosi; ‘lady’; Mrs) and inkosazana (small-female-inkosi – eldest daughter of inkosi; term of respect for any unmarried lady; Miss).


This word is the odd one out here – it is derived from a causative verb, godusa, which is in turn derived from an isenzukuthi – godu. This disyllabic sound denotes “turning back” or “returning home”, and the verb godusa means “1. send home; 2. escort home a betrothed girl from her visit to her lover; 3. Kill (particularly an old person), assist death”. So the noun means “the one who still goes home after her visits, and doesn’t yet live with her lover”. The closest in English is fianceé.

The words in this noun class are here (and not in the human noun class) because they are ritually significant, and they follow cyclical or repetitive modes of behaviour in the cycle of a year or a month. For more on this concept, have a look at my original post on izigaba zamabizo. Basically, they behave like the moon.

If we move on to other noun-classes, the next most populous one in terms of words for people is the “simple fluids” isigaba (NC 5/6 or i(li)-/ama-). There are three words that stay in here for both singular and plural, and then there are a series of words which take ama- plurals but have in- singulars. Firstly, the three locals:


a teenage girl, or a young girl

This word is derived from the twittering noise (like the cheeping of birds) made by large groups of amatshitshi.


A teenage boy, a lad; a youth of sixteen to twenty years of age, when the voice has just broken and the beard is beginning to grow.

This word comes from an isenzukuthi, bhúngu, denoting “1. disappearing or leaving home; 2. breaking up or pulverising; 3. fluttering like soft grass or down on the wind”, and is related to the verbs bhunguka (leave home, abandon one’s parents, live among foreigners, become detribalised) and bhungula (attract away from home or tribal control, detach a person from his attachment to another, seduce). You get the idea.


This word is interesting because it stands as a reminder of practice no longer carried out among the amaZulu, though it continues among other groups.

A young man who has passed through the circumcision school, and who is old enough to commence courting; a girl’s fiancé; a young man popular with the girls.

The word is derived from the verb soka, meaning ‘circumcise’, and these days it often has the meaning of “dude” or “player”.

These words are in this isigaba because they have a certain uniformity (of shape or substance) and tend to travel in packs indistinguishable from one another. This noun class implies all of this – basically, words here behave like water. For more, check out the post.

But there are some words which start out as seasonal (with an in- prefix) and then have their plurals in the simple fluid (with an ama- prefix). This is a source of much sadism on the part of people assessing high school isiZulu among second-language speakers. Here they are:

indoda >> amadoda

indodana >> amadodana

indodakazi >> amadodakazi

intombazane >> amantombazane

inkosi >> amakhosi

inkosikazi >> amakhosikazi

inkosazana >> amakhosazana

I always explain this by saying that these words change because when there are a lot of these people together, they have a uniformity of shape, character and substance, and are not primarily thought of as being like the moon. Whereas more than one intombi is izintombi, as they are still seasonal humans.

Finally, there are a number of abstract nouns derived from these other words we’ve already looked at. They give us a way in to understanding the idea of gender:


  1. Manliness, virility
  2. Semen


  1. Maidenhood; age or condition of a full-grown girl
  2. Virginity

ubusoka (does not occur in Vilakazi 1958)

  1. The state of being isoka
  2. “game” or “courting ability”

And that is where I leave you, for now.

Part 3 will deal more closely with terms of vituperation or abuse, sadly including all modern terms for alternate sexualities and many words for ‘prostitute’.