2440 vs 2261 / uqhekeko

Some ideas marinate for a long time before reaching the right moment to come forth.

I had written the words down on an envelope, about 9 months ago. That envelope has travelled with me all over, tucked into the depths of whatever bag I was carrying or floating freely in the back of my car.

In the centre of it is an isenzukuthi:


Though the act of exploring that word-root was born in a moment of fury, of making sense of being broken into (ukuqhekeza) and robbed earlier this year, the envelope has soaked up the various molecules of this zeitgeist in which I find myself immersed.

Qheke has two basic meanings:

  1. ukuvuleka kwento eqinile eyomile

the-act-of-getting-opened of-a-thing that-is-hardened (and) that-is-dry

  1. ukuklayeka

the-act-of-getting-klaya’d (I’ll explain in a moment)

The first meaning has signified various points of this year for me – the sudden splitting apart of so many taken-for-granted things, the lack of coherence and integrity in the world around us, the feeling that we have all been violated in some way by the different types of order we have put in place to govern ourselves – and it has acted like a koan on which I could meditate in moments where I could see the accepted world breaking open before me, revealing its dried-out bones and desiccated innards.

The second meaning relies on understanding ukuklaya:

to cut through lengthwise

to split

to cleave

to cut across the veld where there is no pathway

This is what has been realised in what has happened this evening, as the izinkonjane swoop through cloudless skies and ululation and vuvuzelas mark the end of a chapter in our history. The path that we could have taken has not been taken. A new path is being made as you read, through the long grass that has grown up in the recent rains. It is Zibandlela, after all. Kodwa beware – oxamu bayabusa ekweneni (monitor lizards are happiest in the overgrowth).

2440 vs 2261.

I knew by the sudden sound that is so much a part of this continent – ukukikizela. Ululation. A howl of joy repeated to the sky as we were spared yet another of Msholozi’s dodges.

At the heart of the numbers this evening is the fact that the party was almost evenly split down the middle.

uKhongolose uthi qheke. (the Congress goes “qheke”)

Ukuqhekeka means “ukuvuleka noma ukuhlukana phakathi kwento ebihlangane” (the opening out or separation within an object that used to be joined) as well as “ukuvula kakhulu; ukuba sobala kungafihleki” (being very open; being clear with nothing hidden).

I’m not so sure about the last one, to be honest. That remains to be seen – but I’m cautiously optimistic.

The noun for what has occurred is u(lu)qhekeko, which is

isenzo sokuhlukana phakathi; ukuqembuka; ukuhlubuka

the act of internal differentiation; factionalism; betrayal

That escalated very very quickly indeed.

You see, the splitting over the votes today shows a kind of split in loyalty, a turning against the established order. It is also a point of decision, and Mbatha adds these two lovely descriptions of ukuhlubuka:

ukuguquka emazweni akhe umuntu

alteration in a person’s words

ukulahla abantu obukade uhambisana nabo ekwenzeni kwezinto

the act of dumping those with whom you used to cooperate when doing things


And those of you with some sense of the language would have noted that uku-qembuka gives us iqembu, a team or party.

How ironic.

The opposite of all of this is ukubumbana. It is the mutual action required of all the particles shaped into a single clay vessel. If one molecule falters, the vessel cracks. impurities that need to be corrected are removed before firing it in a kiln.

It is my hope that we can find some ubumbano in this moment. And that we shape this new vessel in such a way that it holds true in the kiln. Because there’s nothing worse than a pot that explodes during firing. Collateral damage is severe in those cases.


Sounds of Silence

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.

izenzukuthi / ideophones

I’ve been wanting to write about these for a very long while already. They have always fascinated me, and I believe that they are the heart of isiZulu. 
For all of you who don’t know what an ideophone is, I’ll explain here. For those of you that know already, proceed to the next paragraph. 

Let’s start with definitions. Isenzukuthi means the-complex-solid-thing-that-uses-ukuthi. That’s as clear as mud so far. So we must look at ukuthi in order to understand these strange beasts. Ukuthi is, as Vilakazi and Doke put it, a defective monosyllabic verb. If there were a Bedlam for Zulu words, thi would have a padded cell and a straight-jacket, along with azi and sho. This verb forms half of the Zulu arsenal for expressing speech (sho, on a thorazine drip in a neghbouring cell, is the other half). It magically opens a speech bubble in the sentence, into which can be inserted any sound, whether uttered by a human or non-human source. Most often, thi is followed by direct speeh, as well as by that which is perceived or thought. However, thi can also be followed by a sound-effect to capture a specific situation or action. 

Think of graphic novels – BAM! WOLOKOHLO

So an isenzukuthi forms part of that speech or sound bubble, following thi, using a sound to capture the essence of an action or state. Ideophone is from the Greek (of course, isn’t everything?), and means unique (or private) sound (or voice). It shares a lot with the word ideosyncratic, which is the best way to describe these things. Basically, isiZulu has a set of words which express a unique sound to mimic or capture an action or state or colour. 

“Ideophone: a word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, action, state, or intensity”

The izenzukuthi are not curiosities or genre-specific things in isiZulu. They go beyond the realm of creative story-telling or poetry. They are a part of everyday language. 

As a brief aside, let it be known that I am a strange beast – I enjoy reading the dictionary (in any language), and it is my custom to code as I read. I do so using nine different colours – Red for Astronomical Phenomena, Blue for Birds, Orange for Arthropods, Green for Botanical, Brown for Animalia, Light Blue for Marine Creatures, Pink for Relative Qualificatives, Black for Key Verb Stems and Purple for Ideophones. I do this not because I’m insane, but rather so that I can start to map the entire language. And it allows me to make statements such as the following:

There are precisely 100 ideophones beginning with the consonant m. From máka (denoting slapping someone in the face with an open palm) to mbrr (of birds flying) and mvénene (denoting tingling, or running at full speed), this is only one letter’s worth of ideophones. 

Q is even more of a goldmine for izenzukuthi – 113 are recorded in Vilakazi’s dictionary. It is unsurprising to me just how many of these creatures are formed from the click-consonants. If you have ever been a little child, or are currently a beatboxer, you’ll know how satisfying the clicks can be in expressing a variety of things. Q begins with qa (of sudden vision, of seeing something for the first time), moving through qángqalazi (of dying, coming fully into view, or rolling), qéngelele (of standing out, being conspicuous, of smartness or ability), qhámu (of unexpected appearance; of coming suddenly into view), qíngqo (of suddenly springing to life, as a bird when stunned), qóngqo (of reaching the summit or making a knocking noise), and ending with qwíbi (of being alone, single). 

Without getting too bogged down in each and every letter in the alphabet, the last thing I want to talk about here is the way that isiZulu uses ideophones to create new words. There are 22 letters for which isiZulu has ideophones (none for a, e, i, o, r or u, plus one for bh), and this is not yet even the most astounding thing about them – any given ideophone can automatically and regularly give rise to entire lineages of nouns in any of the 8 izigaba, as well as over 4 different types of verbs. That means that they are even part of what are considered to be ordinary parts of speech, like superheroes with their underpants on the inside. 

Let’s just look at one ideophone and its children – ndúlu. It denotes two things: of acting in a dazed or stupid manner, as when giddy, or of streaming out. 

It gives rise to the following nouns:

  •  isindulundulu – a person who acts in an aimless and stupid manner
  •  ubundulundulu – stupidity, aimless or confused action
  •  induluzane – an unenlightened or ignorant person; a person of unsound mind

In addition to these it is the source of four verbs:

  • ukunduluka – to stream out, come out in a stream
  • ukundulula – to send out in a stream or drive off in numbers; to obtain in large quanitities
  • ukunduluza – to act as though dazed or stupid; to look about as if at a loss what to do
  • ukundundulula – to send out in a stream; to obtain in large quantities; to play a trick on someone such as sending them on a senseless journey.

This is just one ideophone. I don’t know (yet) exactly how many there are, but it is my opinion that the majority of nouns and verbs in isiZulu come from them. Which means that rather than treating them as curiosities, they should be taught as early and as constantly as possible in the classroom. 

If you have any special requests for ideophones – your favourite one, or for a description of those relating to a certain action – comment on this blog. 

For now, that’s me done. All that’s left to say is khúmu.