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.


There are three ideophones involved in the fullest understanding of both the general idea and the two distinctions of the concept of ’emotion’ in isiZulu – háwu, hawu (6-3.3-9) and hawu (6-3.9).

Háwu! is an ideophone denoting emotion. It gives rise to all of the different nominal (2) and verbal (4) derivations dealing with emotion.

Verbs include hawuka (feel emotion, e.g. of jealousy, envy, sympathy, sorrow, pity), hawula (excite with deep emotion, transport with emotion, charm, hypnotize), hawuza (praise, applaud, relate the praises of something, outline the news, give a précis, milk quickly).

Of these, one has an applied form found often in Christian settings: hawukela means ‘feel emotion towards’, ‘pity, sympathize with, be sorry for’, and ‘envy, be jealous for’. Sihawukele means ‘have mercy on us’ as part of the Mass and in various prayers in various denominations of Christianity. 

Of nouns there are only two – isihawu (a strong emotional feeling; pity, compassion, sympathy; motherly tenderness; sentiment) and umhawu (emotional feeling of sympathy or pity; sentiment; jealousy, covetousness, envy; indignation, resentment).

Looking at these lists of meaning, it might seem difficult to determine exactly which emotion one was talking about – pity? envy? motherly tenderness? compassion?

But this is all cleared up when you look at the two other ideophones – hawu (6-3.3-6) and hawu (6-3.9).

Your first question might look something like this: “Why have they labeled the &%# words as though they were radioactive isotopes??”

The things in the brackets are indicators of TONE. This paragraph might result in brain-melting for people unfamiliar with tone, so proceed with caution. Tone is ‘the musical modulation of the voice in speech’ (Vilakazi & Doke, 1958). In isiZulu,

there are two types of tone: level tones and gliding tones. When using a level tone, one musical note is struck, and that pitch is maintained as long as the syllable lasts. With gliding tones the syllable commences on a certain musical note and glides to another before the end of the syllable. Gliding tones are, in Zulu, of three types: rising tones, falling tones, and rising-falling tones. Rising tones glide up the scale, falling tones glide down the scale, while rising-falling tones commence at a certain musical note, glide up to a higher, and then before the completion of the syllable glide down again to a lower; rising-falling tones are only found on long syllables. 

That last sentence made me feel slightly better, wandering out from the labyrinthine definitions in 1958 classically-trained English – until I realised that one of these was a long syllable. Damn.

The definition continues, in beautifully detailed fashion:

The Zulu speaker employs a nine-tone system; that is to say, his range of tones in speech covers nine different pitches. These nine tone points cannot be indicated in musical notation, for they depend on relative and not absolute height. The intervals between the notes are the important things. The whole range is generally slightly above an octave, with a man much lower in scale than with a woman. … The highest tone being 1 and the lowest 9.

Ok. So there are 9 different points on the tone-scale. What matters is the interval between them. 1 is high, and 9 is low.

So the difference between hawu (6-3.3-6) and hawu (6-3.9) is this:

Both start with the same glide, from the lower mid-tone to the higher mid-tone, then pause there. The first then glides back to the lower mid-tone, while the second jumps to the lowest of all. 

This difference in tonal expression represents the difference between an interjection of ‘pained surprise’ or ‘strong dissaproval’ and one of ‘joyful surprise’. Of interest here is that the ideophone I started with, háwu, has a tone signature of 8.8-9 – meaning that it doesn’t vary too much at all.

It is simply emotion, without inflection to the positive or the negative. Háwu.

Word Route – Lee

I found this one while translating, as usual, and noted it down while I searched for ‘intimacy’ and ‘alienation’ (it’s a marriage preparation course – interesting linguistically because so many of the English words relating to romance and love and relationships are based on only two or three roots in isiZulu).

When I came to it again, and I began noting down its twists and mutations, I realised that I might just have a new favourite ideophone.

This one, pronounced le-eh (the ‘e’ in isiZulu is the phonetic one, varying only in length of pronunciation) and not like Leigh, is:

[an ideophone] of smooth, slippery surface; of slipping, sliding, of flowing



of falling gradually, gently (as spider, waterfall)


of drowsing, feeling sleepy, gradually going off to sleep (generally       triplicated)

It not only has three related meanings, it also gives rise to 11 nouns and 3 verbs – so it’s been very busy, for a word of its size.

But it’s not only in the definition that there is beauty – the example sentences for each meaning are also wonderfully descriptive:

amadwala eziwa uwabuka athi lee econsa amanzi

the rocks on the riverbanks, you see them slippery with oozing water

uju luvuza luthi lee emaqeqebeni

the honey oozes and falls gradually from the comb

kuhle ngisukume, umzimba uthi lee lee lee

I ought to get up because my body is getting very drowsy

They’re not particularly practical (except maybe the last one, where the action described would bring us many medals if they were to make parliamentary sleeping an Olympic sport), but they get across the idea of the slow drips and slips and nods that characterise each sentence.

Among the derivations are some wonderful insults calling out to be used:

u(lu)lelemba is a dull, sleepy-looking person

umlelemu is a lifeless, sleepy person


umlembelele is a lazy, indolent person

But the most resonant derivation of the ideophone is one of the izithakazelo of iNkosi Shaka kaSenzangakhona – iLembe eleqa amanye amalembe ngokukhalipha (the Blade who conquers other blades in terms of sharpness).

i(li)lembe is…

an obsolete term for igeja, a hoe


a hero

…and is derived from the Ur-Bantu word -lembe meaning an axe or a knife. But how is that linked to the slow, gentle ooze of the original ideophone?

ilembe is the thing that slips smoothly and swiftly through the bellies and bodies of enemies, the thing that then drips with their blood as it hangs from the hand of a hero having slain his rival.

And what would you do to soothe to sleep that rival’s son that night, as he cried for his father? You would leleza (speak gentle soothing words to comfort him and lull him off to sleep).

And as he drifted off to sleep, he would leza (fall down gradually, slide down, become lengthened downwards like a spider’s thread) into sleep.


My wife’s sms comes through mid-morning:

how would you define an ideophone?

I imagine the conversation diverging from the task at hand, the English teachers (supposed to be) discussing next term’s syllabus and sharing out the work for it, and the sudden foray into isiZulu linguistics. I try to figure out what the best approach would be, knowing the people around the table.

A word which mimics a sound descriptively associated with an action or state in which an object, animal or person is. A sound effect, much like the ones used in graphic novels or cartoons – though more extensive in application. Kind of a sound effect mixture of adverb, adjective and verb.

And I leave out so much – that they are one of the most wonderful characteristics of the language of heaven. That there is an ideophone for the breaking of a heart, and one for mass-production. That there are two different ideophones for silence, and countless ones for the way that people walk or talk or are. That there is an ideophone for each different kind of touch, from a caress to a slap.

Word Route: Dábu

reeds_02 Dábu is an ideophone – a part of speech which in isiZulu has the rather usage-oriented name of ‘isenzukuthi’. What this means is ‘the thing that works using ukuthi’ – so-called because ideophones are used much like the English phrases ‘it goes bang‘ or ‘they always go pop like that’, where the ‘to go…’ is ‘ukuthi…’ in isiZulu, and the words in bold are ideophones.

No, they’re not always onomatopoeic- ideophones are words that use a certain sound to denote the carrying out of an action, so they are adverbial or descriptive in that sense. They are also the root of many nouns and verbs, through fairly standard paths of derivation, e.g. ukuqhuma (to explode) and umqhumuko (a bursting forth of people or things) are derived from the ideophone qhúmu (denoting ‘bursting open’ or ‘crushing something that bursts or breaks noisily’).

Today’s word is dábu, denoting tearing or cracking. There are 6 pure nouns, 3 compound nouns and 3 verbs that derive from this one ideophone.

In terms of 6 pure nouns, there are the following:

umdabu  is a) origin (as of a tribe); b) an inyanga’s name for the intolwane plant,   Elephantorhiza burchelii, a dwarf Mimosa shrub, whose roots are used as an emetic for love-charms, as well as for stomach and chest complaints

umdabuka is a) a crack in the skin; b) original inhabitant of a place

isidabuko is a place of origin, an original source or original custom

indabuko is a) source, origin b) inherited custom

umdabuko is a) source, origin b) original custom, inherited manners

The 3 Compound Nouns are:

indabulaluvalo: literally ‘fear-cracker’ a) a species of marble, which is used ground up as part of any medicine for causing unusual power (as by young men when courting, or to induce favour); b) species of trees, whose bark is used for chest and heart complaints, Spermacoce natalensis, Panicum maximum or Senecio bupleroides

ilidabulambizo, literally ‘pot-render’; Young bullock with tender flesh (the swelling of the flesh on cooking is supposed to burst the pots)

udabulizangciliterally ‘one-who-rends-like-a-wild-dog’: Love charm medicine

Finally, having been led into the metaphors of rending and cracking and tearing, here are the 3 verbs (each with a number of suffixal derivatives):

dabukaintransitive verb: a) get torn or rent (as a garment); b) crack, become cracked (of earthen vessel, of the skin), become chapped; c) become heart-broken, saddened, grieved; be sorry, contrite; d) die, draw the last breath; e) originate, have origin (as a tribe); f) idiomatic uses, such as: ‘ukudabuka indlebe’ (be unsettled, be in a state of alarm and anxiety) and ‘ukudabuka kokusa’ (the break of dawn).

dabukelaapplied form of ‘dabuka’:  a) get torn for, crack for; b) be sorry for, pity; c) have origin at, originate at

dabulatransitive verb: a) tear, rend; cleave, split down, saw through; chap (of cloth); b) pass through, cut across; c) survey, divide off plots of land; d) cause sorrow, cut to the heart; e) bring into being, originate, create; f) Unsheathe, draw weapon (as if from bundle)

These are the different aspects of dábu – an ideophone having quite interesting effects on things like the creation myth of the amaZulu. In this myth, it is said that

abantu badatshulwe ohlangeni

people were cleaved off from the bundle of reeds

reed ceremony

The reeds occupy a central part of the creation mythology of the amaZulu and the amaSwati. And so the reed ceremony celebrates the young and supple, reedlike young men and women in a series of fertility rituals. The amabutho in formation, about to attack, stand like a rustling stand of reeds with spears to the sky. And it is that first cleaving which is remembered every time one of us dies, or one draws a weapon.