Happy St Patrick’s Day! Make sure you’re wearing into eluhlaza!

Blue-green conflation is what I like to call it. Others prefer ‘confusion’ rather than ‘conflation’, and still others talk about ‘Grue’ languages – ones that do not have separate words for those two colours. What matters to me is that my students almost universally react with confusion, and usually ask questions like “but how would a Zulu-speaker describe the colour of the sky?” or “what colour is the sea, then?”.

You see, isiZulu’s wonderfully descriptive view of colour does not extend to what English calls blue. It does, however, have a word for green. In terms of other languages that do this, you can check out this nifty wiki on ‘Blue-green distinction in language” – although if you’re feeling really scholarly, you should also give Berlin and Kay’s 1969 work “Basic Color terms: Their Universality and Evolution” a read.

So, to get back to the language at hand, what word does isiZulu use? It uses -luhlaza, which is a relative, much like -mhlophe, -mnyama and -bomvu. Just like them, it’s derived from a noun, u(lu)hlaza:

  1. Young green grass or herbage
  2. Greenness, freshness; the prime of one’s life
  3. A large grey-headed bush-shrike, with olive-green body
  4. A green-coloured bead
  5. a duiker (aka impunzi)

So far, this seems to be going well – although a duiker isn’t technically green, all the other things are on the ‘green spectrum’. Another related noun is isihlaza, which is a garden of sweet potatoes – I can attest to the vibrant greenness of these plants.

So what added meanings does -luhlaza have?

  1. green or blue (of any shade)
  2. clear or crystalline, like pure water
  3. raw, green; uncooked, unripe
  4. uncultured, uneducated or mannerless
  5. glossy, polished, burnished

Hey, where did those other meaning come from? Well, it’s not uncommon for ‘green’ to mean ‘raw’ or ‘rude’ – English does it all the time, and I’m sure others do too. In terms of glossy or burnished, just think of the fresh green grass (or a field of sweet potato plants) and you’re there. But clear, like water?

You see, this is my answer to the questions I get – what colour is water? Especially, what colour is water in the rivers and lakes of Africa?

While you’re digesting that, have a look at some of the other related words:

ukuhlaza (verb) – to disgrace, shame, dishonour or bring reproach upon someone

umhlaza (noun) – a species of edible tuber (aka umbondwe); a sweet potato (aka ubhatata); a sixth finger of toe generally growing alongside the small one; cancer (aka umdlavuza)

u(lu)hlazane (noun) – the green aspect of the country in spring; greenish tinge of growth; a small green object.

i(li)hlazo (noun) – a disgraceful or shameful deed; disgrace or dishonour; discredit or shame.

So green is associated with dishonour, spring and cancer. Wow. And to complicate matters, this word is used to describe what English calls ‘blue’ too. So how does one distinguish?

In classrooms, and sometimes in speech, people are taught that -luhlaza okwesibhakabhaka is blue, whereas -luhlaza okotshani is green. There are many variants of this complicated phrase, but the two comparisons are the same – green like the firmament or heaven, and green like the grass. However, you’ll often just hear people using the borrowed word -bh(u)lu to refer to blue.

I don’t ever, but I’m a purist.

So hopefully I haven’t boiled your brain just yet, because here’s another option – isiZulu uses an isenzukuthi, cwe, to denote

  1. blueness, greenness, clearness
  2. a bare, denuded state

…which could, given enough buy-in from isiZulu speakers, be converted for use to describe ‘blue’. There are also words used as izihlonipho for -luhlaza, which might one day become the word for ‘blue’ –

-lucwamba = -luhlaza

u(lu)cwamba = green vegetation or a duiker.

I think I’ll just leave this here for now. In the meantime, even if you’re not wearing green for St Paddy’s, if you’re wearing something blue it’s all the same ngesiZulu!

If you’re still up for some more colour discussion, listen to this amazingly interesting piece by Guy Deutscher (my personal linguistic hero) entitled “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?”.