I folded the A3 sheet into 8 rectangular sections, and laid it out in landscape – 4 on the top and 4 on the bottom. I arranged four different coloured pens, each for a specific aspect of the exercise. And then, from memory and from various sources scattered around the room, I began to fill it in.

I started with the term ‘Gender’ itself, using the black pen for the basic text. Four words, three clustered in the rectangle for Complex Solids and the other one in Abstracts. Isilili, isilisa, isifazane, ubulili.

I then picked up a blue pen and started to fill in the primary words for gender roles – umama and ubaba, ibhungu and itshitshi, intombi and indoda among others. Again, these clustered – but this time they were mostly on the other side of the A3 page – Humans and Seasonal, with a scattering of Simple Fluid, Complex Solid and Essence. I only included the basic words here, but I ended up with 19 words.

Then I picked up a red pen, for a sub-category to those words in blue – these were words derived from the primary words for gender roles, such as intombazane and indodana. Here, they clustered most in the Seasonal group, with a few in essences and a couple in Complex Solids.

Finally, I picked up the orange pen. I paused here, because the words I was about to write are abusive. I tried to distance myself from them, but they’re designed to provoke an emotional response.

They are what I like to call vituperative terms, and as I wrote them I saw that they fit into every single one of the rectangles, even those usually reserved for totally inanimate things – the Simple Solids and the Complex Fluids. I knew I hadn’t found them all, but so far there were 61 words, 49 of them describing people and the rest describing their actions and ways of being.

Many of them (11) were in the Names sub-class of the Human group, because they are terms one uses when addressing (or in this case, abusing) someone to their face. Most (13) were in the Complex Solids group, as with many other insults that do not have a gender basis, such as isilima and isiphukuphuku. Quite a few (9) were found in the Seasonal group, mostly because of their animal connotations, and a few (7) were in the Simple Fluids – these are stereotyping vituperative terms, implying that one is exactly like all the others. There were 8 Verbs which carry a vituperative gendered character, and 4 Abstracts denoting the way of life of someone called by these terms. But the odd thing is that 6 of the words were in the Simple Solids noun class – the most dehumanising of all, reserved in almost every instance only for non-human things. Finally, 3 of the terms were found in the Complex Fluids Group – meaning that they are ever-changing, but also that they are somehow inexplicable.

Looking at the words, orange pen in hand, I realised that I had only told half the story. So I picked up the black pen again, and this time I went through the orange words more closely, affixing either a male symbol, female symbol or unisex symbol to each word. And here’s the thing – of the 48 words directly describing people, 20 were reserved for female humans, 8 were for male humans, and 20 were unisex.

Just have another look at those figures. Perhaps you’d like them as percentages: 42% female, 16% male, 42% unisex.

We’re talking about insults here. And if the majority of gendered insults are aimed at women, then that’s an issue.

So then I looked even closer, this time picking up a green pen. What I did was that I coded the words according to what specific aspect they were insulting. And the results are interesting – the groups were ‘homosexuality’, ‘prostitution and immorality’, and ‘fertility and marriage norms’.

The group involving insulting by referring to homosexuality was quite small, just 6 of the 48 words (or 13%) – words here included isitabane, ungqingili and inkonkoni. Included here are implications of hermaphroditism, and insults targeting effeminate behaviours in male humans. What was interesting was that not one of those words specifically targeted female humans – in fact, 3 of the words were unisex, and 3 target male humans.

The next group, insulting by referring to prostitution and immoral behaviour, was another interesting mix – 23 words (48% of the whole sample), 11 of which focused on female humans, none solely on male humans, and 12 of which were unisex in application – words here included isifebe, unondindwa, umzaza, ikhwixikhwixi and ugola. Again, this throws some harsh light on the concept of slut-shaming, specifically of women, as an indigenous discourse. These insults were also closely linked to the next group, as anyone engaging in immoral behaviour is on track for putting themselves outside the marriage norms.

So, the final group related to ‘fertility and marriage norms’, with two sub-categories – those outside the traditional inheritance system as a result of premarital sex or informal/transactional sex, and those who are infertile or otherwise cannot ‘get married and have kids’. Words here included unomlanjwana, umakhwapheni, ishende, ivezandlebe, isigwadi and inyumba. There were 19 words here (40% of the words found), and of those 11 were specifically for female humans.

I sat back and surveyed the paper in front of me, now littered with notes and symbols, in five different colours, representing the total of my understanding of the linguistic aspect of gender ngesiZulu. It daunted me. But I have written it up now, and the way is opening for more discussions of these concepts.

If you haven’t already done so, have a look at Gender Part 1 and Part 2, where I discuss some of the other aspects of Gender in more depth.