When I get to this word, in that first explanation of the complex beauty of the izigaba zamabizo, I can barely contain my excitement. I’m sure that people I’ve taught can attest to this. I try my hardest to keep to the Socratic method, and to rely on the learner’s knowledge. This is important. It’s a form of hypothesis-testing.

You see, I’ve been interested in the izigaba zamabizo for a long time now, probably longer than I consciously realise. In my interest, I attempted to work out some sort of understanding of them – the whys and whats that made them what they are. Some were very easy, and others took a little longer. What I discovered is that, usually, there is one word which can work as an exemplar for each isigaba – umuntu, umuthi, amanzi, isimo, ubisi, ubuntu, ukudla. These exemplars were able to explain the criteria for a word’s inclusion in that class. But I couldn’t work out an exemplar for the in- isigaba. It eluded me.

One day, I was teaching a student somewhere in Kensington, and we were running through the noun classes. We got to the in- class and I admitted to him, after many words being fed into it, that I had no clear idea of what sort of nouns this class was for. And then I looked at the word ‘inyanga’ written there, and it began to click into place.

You see, it’s a particular favourite of mine. But on that day, I looked at it differently.

Here’s what it means:

  1. the Moon; a lunar month {2.3-8.8-3}
  2. a herbalist; a diviner; a renowned doctor {2.3-8.9}
  3. an expert, one skilled in a particular profession {2.3-8.}

The tones are noticeably different for ‘Moon’ and ‘herbalist’, but the words are incredibly close to each other. There’s a related verb, which Vilakazi contended is derived from the noun, although it is more probably from an Ur-Bantu root -yañga (apologies for not being able to reproduce the proper phonetics) meaning ‘heal’. It’s tone is 6.6-3. The verb means “do skilled work; be a professional; practise as a doctor; divine; use charms”.

So when I looked at the word, I started to imagine it. The Moon. In many languages, the word for the Earth’s satellite and for the period it takes for one cycle is the same – so it is in isiZulu. For the 28 days of a lunar cycle, one is aware of the following characteristics – it rises and sets at different times on different days; it moves across the sky in a pattern that, while an arc, is not the same relative to time each night; it changes shape in a predictable way, dying and filling again; and it has a noticeable effect on flora and fauna.

This last aspect of the moon is what links it to the idea of healing. When I was doing my MA and interviewing izinyanga and izangoma, I had a long conversation with one particular inyanga in Durban. He knew our family, and had been to visit us on my father’s birthday. He was the man who led me around the garden, pointing out the remedies available to us in its limited scope. What he told me was that, while an inyanga gains some inspiration from the amadlozi, and some from the knowledge handed down from parent to child, that he (and other izinyanga) had a special sense of when to harvest medical material from the environment. He spoke of how the trees communicate with people, and how grass communicates with the herbivores that feed on it, and how there were certain times of the night when that communicative and healing energy would be at its strongest. He mentioned the effect of the moon in this, and at the time I was not fully aware of its significance.

You see, the moon itself is a focus of mystical energy in many cultures because it is complex. That complexity may have been one of many patterned things which contributed to the growth of human knowledge and culture – in solving the mysteries of the Moon’s passage across the sky every day, humanity became able to apprehend other mysteries. At first, those mysteries were truly cosmic – Stonehenge is a shining example of the mystical power of observing Sol’s pattern of movement across the sky over the solar year. Those who were able to decode the patterns of the heavenly bodies became ‘experts’, ritually recognised as healers and diviners because of their knowledge.

Enough diversion – all of this was apparent to me at that moment, sitting at that table in Kensington. And it became clear to me – that the in- isigaba was one where the dominant metaphor was ‘moon-like’ or ‘seasonal’ or even ‘phasic’. I’ve tried it out since, and even used my experimental method on unsuspecting conservationists, who have since confirmed my initial hypothesis.

So, next time you look at the moon, think of that.


impambosi or isijobelelo?

In trying to explain the way that words are modified ngesiZulu, I often find that the words that isiZulu uses for grammatical terms are far more useful than their English equivalents. The two words above both denote ‘suffixal change’, but they have completely different ways of getting there.

isijobelelo – a suffix (literally the modifiable thing that jobelela’s = the thing that joins on to something else, or adds to it, increasing it in size, length or quantity.

The term is derived from joba, a root meaning ‘tack something on to something else’ or ‘add something’.  Jobelela is the perfective form, denoting ‘be tacked on to something else’. It’s a dead-ringer for suffix, which denotes a thing ‘fixed’ on to the end of a word.

The other word, impambosi, is way more interesting (though maybe less precise):

impambosi – a deviation; a side issue; a turning from the usual course; a maze; a labyrinth; a perverting influence; a formation or derivation of a word, like the applied form of a verb.

It’s derived from the isiqu ‘phamba’, an Ur-Bantu word denoting things crossing each other and intertwining. Incidentally, it also denotes playing a trick on someone. In its other forms, it can mean ‘clash with one another’ as well as ‘lie, misstate the truth’. In fact, there are 24 different words related to this isiqu, including the constellation of Orion’s belt (impambano), the crucifix (isiphambano), and retaliation (umphambaniselo).

So next time you want to talk about suffixal change to a verb, you have a choice: tack something on, or digress into the winding woven twistiness of the verb formations.

Heart-based Relatives

I’ve already written about the inhliziyo, here, but while I was doing that (and while I was teaching yesterday) I rediscovered a set of 12 relatives derived from the the root word. If you know what a ‘relative’ is in isiZulu linguistics, skip to the list. Otherwise, stay tuned.

A relative is one of four ways that a noun can be described ngesiZulu. The other three are Adjectives (which most of you should recognise), Enumeratives and Possessives. For now, let’s just focus on the first two – Adjectives and Relatives. An adjective is a word with qualifies a noun (hence in isiZulu these four things are called Qualificatives). There are only about 18 true adjectives ngesiZulu – qualities such as: big (-khulu), small (-ncane), tall or long (-de), short (-fushane or -fuphi), good (-hle), bad (-bi), young (-sha) and old (-dala); and quantities such as: some or other (-nye), two (-bili), three (-thathu), four (-ne), five (-hlanu), many (-ningi) and how many (-ngaki). As you can see, they have dashes before them – this means that they do not exist as words on their own, but only when they are brought into agreement with a noun by using that noun’s adjectival concord.

Almost all other description in isiZulu is achieved using the Relative, including all of the colours (more on these in a later post). Verbs, copulatives and Relative stems (halfway to becoming Adjectives) can all act as a relative. Relatives are descriptive things made from other parts of speech.

The following are relatives derived from a combination of the word for ‘heart’, inhliziyo, and other descriptive elements:

-nhliziyobomvu: ‘red-hearted’ = bad-tempered, angry

-nhliziyohluthu: ‘heart-snappy’ = quick-tempered

-nhlizyombi: ‘bad-hearted’ = evil-hearted

-nhliziyombili: ‘double-hearted’ = unreliable, undecided, double-minded

-nhlizyomfushane: ‘short-hearted’ = short-tempered, impatient

-nhliziyomhlophe: ‘white-hearted’ = calm, peaceful, unruffled, pure-hearted

-nhliziyomnyama: ‘black-hearted’ = lacking in appetite, gloomy-hearted

-nhliziyoncane: ‘small-hearted’ = impatient, quick-tempered

-nhlizyonde: ‘long-hearted’ = patient, long-suffering

-nhliziyonhle: ‘good-hearted’ = good-hearted (duh)

-nhliziyonye: ‘single-hearted’ = unchanging, good-hearted

Digest those for a bit (not literally, of course, as heart is very chewy), and use them to describe people. All you need to do is prefix the subject concords for the three persons, singular and plural, or use the relative concord to describe other things:

e.g. nginhlizomfushane = I am quick-tempered; banhliziyobomvu = they are bad-tempered etc.

Enjoy! Bye for now.

Selected Headlines from Isolezwe 16/05/2013

As usual on a Thursday, I popped in to the Caltex in Cyrildene to buy Isolezwe on my way back from my lesson in Yeoville. It was beautiful driving down the avenues, with plain trees and liquid ambers scattering themselves over the road in the tentative autumn morning light. With the headlines staring at me full of intrigue and accusation all the way home, I unfolded the paper and began to read:

Front page: Amanyala ebhildini likahulumeni elihlala abangakhokhi < Disgraceful filth in a government building sitting with unpaying residents

Front page picture: Uthathelwe isoka ngudadewabo < She had her steady boyfriend stolen by her sister.

Page 3: Bagane unwabu ngesenzo sothisha < They ‘marry the chameleon’ over the teacher’s  deed.

Page 3: Uzocela ibheyili ‘odlwengule’ ona-13 < Man who ‘raped’ a 13-yr-old will request bail

Page 3: Ubanjiwe ‘umdlwenguli’ obefunwa < Long-sought ‘rapist’ caught

Page 4: Inkombane ngebhilidi elihlala abakahulumeni bhusende < Poisonous-finger-pointing about a building housing government people being in a parlous state

Page 5: ‘Sidinga imizi hhayi izindlu zangasese’ < “We need homes, not toilets”

Page 6: ‘Uphazamisekile emqondweni’ < ‘He’s mentally disturbed’

Page 6: Kushone 20 wabafana abebeyosoka < Death of 20 boys who were going to be circumcised / be intitiated

Page 6: Sishayelwe ihlombe isinqumo sikaKolisile < Decision of Kolisile applauded (has its should patted)

Page 7: Iwumqemane intombazanyana eyasha < Tiny little girl who burnt is a hero

Page 7: Bazogomela umdlavuza ezikoleni < They will innoculate against cancer at schools

Page 8: Usaqhuba kahle ona-12 ongenazingalo < 12-year-old without arms making good progress

Page 10: Babuyile othisha abebesaba isibhaxu < The teachers who feared the whip have returned

Page 10: Sebehlaselana emakhaya ababangayo < Rivals at home are attacking each other.

Page 12: Zicasukile izitshudeni ‘ngembuzi’ < Students nauseated ‘because of a goat’

Page 13: Abanikwanga amanzi ngoba ebiza: ummeli < They haven’t been given water because it’s expensive: lawyer.

Page 14: Akube nokubambisana ezinhlakeni zikahulumeni (editorial) < Let there be cooperation between sections of government.

Page 14: Buyephi ubuntu kwabesilisa? (Cartoon by Qaps Mngadi) < Where did the ubuntu of men go to?

Page 14: Bantu besifazane asizikhethe izinto esizigqoka emphakathini (column by Nondumiso Mbuyazi, called ‘isibhuda samanje’) < Women, let us choose what we wear in the community

Page 15: ISilo asigxekanga izigqebhezana (letter from Mtwana Thulani Zulu eZibindini Zamadoda) < The Beast doesn’t run down the gossips

Page 15: Kuseyindelelo ukuthi uNjinji ukhulele entabeni (letter from Mxolisi Manyathi eNquthu) < It’s contemptuous saying that Njinji grew up in the mountains

Page 16: Uyalishaya ibhodwe ophekela awasemanzini < Cook for the water-based-regiments really strikes the pot

Page 17: Abakhangisi bengqephu bacija intsha yasemakhaya < Fashion-marketers urge on the homeland youth

Page 17: Bahlalele ovalweni abazali ngezingane zabo < Parents live in fear for their children

Page 20: I-NFP neqhinga ngobudlelwano ne-ANC < The NFP and the craft involved in making a relationship with the ANC.

And after glancing through them, running the metaphors and idioms in front of my eyes a few times before they made any sense, I had to run to my next lesson. But here they are – if you’re curious about something, or if my five-minute glance missed something, please comment and let me know!

Word Route: -Lo

Looking at the two letters above, it’s hard to imagine how significant they are in the language of the amaZulu. You may even be thinking I’m crazy, or lost, or both.

Let me show you.

-lo is the meaning portion (the root) of the noun isilo, which has izilo as its plural. It has numerous derivations, and one very particular cultural frame of reference – it is the title of the Zulu King.

Basically, though, it means

a) a wild beast, a wild carnivorous animal

b) a leopard, a lion (the term is particularly applied to these two beasts)

c) a red intestinal worm

d) prey, victim, target

There are numerous idioms around these two small letters:

isilo asithintwa          a wild beast is not disturbed (let sleeping dogs lie)

isilo sengwe               the leopard’s prey, an ambush or conspiracy

isiLo samaBandla, iNkosi Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu
isiLo samaBandla, iNkosi Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu

There are a number of terms of address for the Zulu King:

“IsiLo samaBandla! Wena weNdlovu! Ndabezitha! Bayethe! Inkosi yoHlanga! Ngonyama! etc.”

In this short burst, you have a number of different metaphors or links being created:

“Wild-Carnivore of-the-Assemblies-of-Men! Oh you of-the-Elephant! One-Spoken-of-by-Enemies! Bring-em-on! Lord of-the-Reeds! Lion! etc.”

It is because of these titles that the amaZulu do not use the word ‘ingonyama’ to mean ‘lion’ in common speech, nor do they use ‘isilo’ to mean ‘leopard’ – because of inhlonipho, the system of respect offered between people who are kin or bound by social agreement.

This is a system in which those portions of other words which contain the syllables of names of people of importance are rendered unusable because of that fact – so you cannot use the two syllables ‘-nyama-‘ to refer to ‘meat’ if you’re from the Zulu clan, as those syllables are part of the titles of the amaZulu – ngoNYAMA. You have to find a different word (a synonym) – and isiZulu uses iNgcosa to refer ngenhlonipho (politely) to meat.

Instead of Ngonyama meaning Lion, isiZulu uses the word i(li)Bhubhesi. Instead of isiLo, they use iNgwe.

The same inhlonipho requirements do not apply to the diminutives derived from isiLo – isilwana/e and isilonyakazane.

isilwana means ‘a small wild beast, a contemptible wild beast’ or ‘a small leopard’

isilwane has different meanings entirely: a) animal (domestic or wild); animal life; b) wild beast, ferocious animal (= isilo); c) animal or person of outstanding qualities.

isilwane then seems to have created, by horizontal formation, both an abstract and a very strange noun from the stem -lwane, as well as two further diminutives – isilwanyane and isilwanyakazane.

The abstract noun is ubulwane, denoting ‘animal character or bestiality’. Hectic.

The very strange noun is umlwane – which surprisingly belongs to the same Noun Class as certain inanimate natural objects such as rivers and trees, even though it describes something human: a) a worthless, good-for-nothing person; one despicably poor or chronically ill; b) a departed spirit (more usually i(li)dlozi). It would be a good translation for ‘you worthless pathetic creature’.

Finally (hopefully) the diminutives have the following meanings:

isilwanyakazane is an insect, a little creature, or vermin.

isilwanyane is: a) a small animal or b) a small creeping or flying creature; a terrifying little creature (more usually i(li)nunu)

and isilwanyazane means: a) an insect or b) a ‘monster’.

Interesting. And all from just two letters.

And what does it say about some of isiZulu’s underlying metaphors? That the King is like a great carnivorous beast, devouring and triumphing in protection of his pride, roaring out over his kingdom. That leadership is always considered to be violent?

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.

Word Routes: Cwiya or Dábu?

This morning I am torn between two word routes to follow: ukuCwiya or Dábu

The first has to do with muthi killings and analysis. The second word route has to do with tearing, cracking & all metaphorical aspects thereof. Like rhegnumi in Greek.

Dábu or Cwiya? Cwiya is a verb root, meaning ‘cut off small pieces; cut off portions for purposes of witchcraft, as done by an umthakathi from a victim’. Cwiya also means ‘steal in small quantities (as food from a bulk or cloth from a bale, so that the loss is unnoticed)’. Finally, which is a very interesting metaphorical leap for me, Cwiya means ‘analyse (chemically, grammatically, etc.)’.

The Noun, isiCwiyo, means ‘a small choice piece, tidbit, such as is cut off a slaughtered beast; portion cut for muthi from a victim or ‘a stolen piece’. But there isn’t any reference to the ‘chemical or grammatical analysis’ aspect of the verb’s meaning.

The second word route is that of the ideophone Dábu. Knowing how versatile the izenzukuthi (ideophones) can be, let’s follow it to its source. Dábu is an ideophone denoting ‘tearing, cracking’. When it is umdabu (only ever used in the singular), it means ‘origin’. Umdabu is also the name the izinyanga give to the intolwane plant, Elephantorhiza Burchelii, a dwarf Mimosa, used as an emetic. Then there are the verbs – Dabuka and Dabula. And 9 more major derivatives! This is a rich word route indeed. I’ll get back to it later.

For more detail on some of these issues, see my occultzulu blog here.