In my endless research on izenzukuthi (ideophones), I have begun to get an idea of different groups – monosyllabic, disyllabic and polysyllabic – and what sort of sounds are associated with what ideas.

Because, in case you didn’t already know this, ideophones are all about sound. Specifically, they represent the association of a sound with a range of different things – colours, shapes, manner of acting, textures and, of course, sounds.

When dealing with monosyllabic ideophones, I’m talking about a single sound representing any one of those characteristics – and the most ironic of those are the sounds for silence.

There are 5 monosyllabic sounds denoting silence ngesiZulu, which I will outline below. Broadly speaking, they occupy two different tonal patterns – two of them are 8-9 (a falling tone at the lower end of the vocal range) and three of them are 2 (a very high tone, almost at the top of the range).

nzo (8-9) –  firmness, fixed position; inaction, silence; strutting, walking on stilts; walking with long thin legs. Basically, this ideophone is all about being inert or fixed. The kind of silence that a long-legged water-bird might have as it waits for the fish to be lured by its feet. Related words include: nzola (to act firmly, with determination; be resolute), unzó (a full stop, aka ungqi), nzonzobala (grow overpowering; spread over and above others in fame or achievement), umnzonzo (the thin leg of a bird, or a thin-legged person), i(li)nzonzo (again, leg of a bird or person with those kinds of legs!), inzonzobeyana (a strong, wiry person with sharp, piercing eyes), nzonzoza (to strut about or walk on stilts, or to walk like a bird or person with long thin legs) and another ideophone – nzólolo (of completeness). 8 different words from this first sound for silence.

shu (8-9) – darting in or dodging about (as a snake in the grass, or a meerkat when disturbed); passing through; silence, holding the mouth closed (used with the negative verb). Now it’s an observation that’s fairly easy to make – many words for shutting someone up involve ‘sh’. But this one is slightly different. It’s the silence of a fast-moving thing (either predator or prey), about to pounce. Related words include: isishu (a silent or reticent person), umushu (a stroke or line, as made by a pen or pencil or stick; a stripe; the line of a shooting star – almost all of which are also represented by the ideophone ‘shwa’ as well as the isiqu “sho”), shuba (to finish off at a single stroke; become thick or firm or set, like porridge or plaster of Paris; become mature; reach full strength with good morale), umshubelo (a hlonipha term for umlotha, the ash), umshubiso (a perlargonium plant whose roots are used as an enema in dysentery), umshubo (an effective stroke or sudden death). 6 words from this one. 

mu (2) – completion, complete number; surrounding with deafening sound; perfect silence. In this case, silence is what happens when one is enclosed completely, as though held in the mouth. Vilakazi doesn’t have any direct derivations from this word, but I think that mumatha (hold in the mouth, with mouth closed; contain; investigate slowly and gradually; withhold speed in discussion; be outstanding or of special importance in a discussion) and its related nouns – isimumatha (anything closed up, hidden or unexplored) and i(li)mumatho (a hlonipha term for i(li)thamo, a mouthful) – have a good claim to ancestry in mu. So 3 words from this ideophone.

nya (2) – nothingness, disappearance, ending, silence. This ideophone is not to be confused with the root of the verb ukunya, meaning to defecate and having a tone of 3. There are two words derived from this isenzukuthi – nyamalala (vanish, disappear) and i(li)nya (2.6.3 tone, denoting complete clearance, finishing off; emptiness, nothingness; disappearance) – but there is also the overwhelmingly obvious association of this root with the words for darkness (e.g. -mnyama). So this kind of silence, with its two directly derived words, is associated with vanishing completely. 

tu (2) – silence. Finally. This one has no words derived from it, and is the clearest contender for silence and only silence. The exemplar sentence in Vilakazi has this phrase: “Thula uthi tu” – “Keep perfectly silent”.

I think that’s a great place to end. Asithi tu.

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