imibala yomhlaba pt 3 – luhlaza

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?”.


imibala yomhlaba (pt 2)

Last week I began with -bomvu, only to be interrupted by the horrors of living in a world where a little girl can almost be raped by a man who’s only defence is that he’s drunk.

I’m going to move on now, in the hopes that this will be somewhat therapeutic.

Red is -bomvu, as described before. There are in actual fact many different kinds of red, usually combining the -bomvu with one of the 10 or more ideophones for redness, like klebhu. Some are their own relatives, like –mtshezi or -mkhandlu.

White is -mhlophe. This relative is derived from the word umhlophe, meaning:

1. the whites of the eyes (waveza umhlophe wamehlo = he showed the whites of his eyes = he was furious)

2. a white beast or cow

The meaning of -mhlophe is interesting in its extensions:

1. white, pale-coloured, faded

2. pure, faultless, innocent

3. destitute, empty

As an expression, mhlophe means ‘evidently’ or ‘clearly’. And this colour stands (as is usual in the world’s languages) in complete contrast to the colour -mnyama, black.

Umnyama denotes 7 different things:

1. darkness, gloom

2. a bad omen

3. redness of the eyes indicating fury

4. reddening or darkening of the skin appearing in stripes or patches on limbs or breasts at the time of attainment of puberty.

5. a fabulous animal, said to resemble a sheep, believed to inhabit ponds where the rainbow terminates, and whose fat is said to have the various colours of the rainbow.

6. an otter

7. the grain in wood, or colouring above the calf, behind the knee.

Wow. That’s quite a range of interpretation – rainbows and fury and otters and melanin concentration. But it’s not finished yet – there is a cognate noun, isinyama:

1. a state of drifting towards disaster; the quiet before a storm; a foreboding, an omen of evil

2. failure to clear oneself from accusation

With all of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that -mnyama denotes:

1. black, dark in colour (duh)

2. deep, profound, unfathomable

3. confused, hazy, dizzy

4. gloomy, angry

5. lacking in appetite (see -nhlizyomnyama for further application)

6. ill-omened, dread

So is it any wonder that dark-skinned Africans reject the appellation ‘Black’ in favour of ‘Brown’? The only problem with this choice is that isiZulu has many many many different words for brown, ranging from purplish brown (-mdaka) to dun brown (-mpofu), reddish brown (-mdokwe) and dark brown (-mfusi). The one most common, and the one used to denote the brown people of the earth, is –nsundu:

dark-brown; chocolate-coloured

It’s a relative derived from the noun insundu, which is a dark brown ox or cow. The original word is the Ur-Bantu -kundu, meaning ‘red’. If that confuses you, just think about a colour spectrum – red tends towards brown, and brown towards black.

Of crucial importance spiritually are the first three colours I dealt with here – the red, the white and the black. They represent the tripartite division of the universe – white is above, black is below, and red in the middle. We are creatures of redness, with red blood. The amadlozi are beneath the black earth, and uNkulunkulu or uMvelinqangi is in the sky with the white clouds. This is one way of looking at colour symbolism ngesiZulu.

This is enough for one day – blue, green, purple and yellow coming up in another post.

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.

Relatives & Adverbs with LU-

The following is a list of words derived from nouns in the ulu- / izin- Noun Class (which I call the Concepts NC). Some of them are Relatives (descriptive things used to draw a relationship between a noun and something else), while others are Adverbs (descriptive things used to enlarge on or modify verbs).

Read through them, use them in daily life to add spice to your description of a NOUN (using the Relative Concord) or to enlarge the meaning of a VERB (use as is), or discard them if you wish.

Personally, these are some of my favourite words – I just like the way the LU sounds when introducing these concepts (especially as it is so absent in the nouns themselves, e.g. with uluthando losing the LU to become uthando).


-lubengu : sharp, cutting

-lubisi : creamy; cream coloured

lubule : in reclining position (adv)

lucezu : edgewise, sideways, with force (adv)

-lucwamba : hlonipha term for luhlaza

-lucwatha : hairless, smooth

-ludizima : hazy, misty

ludongalunye : of one purpose, or of similar intention

lufifi : indistinctly, hazily (adverb)

-lufifi : indistinct, hazy, dim, dull

-lufipha : dark brown, purplish brown; dirty-coloured

-lufipho: dull burnt-brown

lugugube : walking sideways, crabwise

-luhlaza : green, blue (of any shade); clear, crystalline (as pure water); raw, green; uncooked, unripe; uncultured, uneducated, mannerless; glossy, polished, burnished

-luhlwa : poverty-stricken, destitute; naked

lukeke : sideways, awry, askant, askew; in lopsided position; with crablike movement

-lukeke : lopsided, leaning, slanting

-lukhozi : black with white marks on the belly and speckling on the forehead

-lukhuni : hard, stiff, rigid; difficult; hard-hearted

-lukhuntu : morose, surly; discoloured

-lula : light (in weight), flimsy; lacking in personality; easy; agile, light-footed; airy, cool, quiet

-lunkonono : hesitant, unwilling, reluctant, indifferent

-luntwentwe : transparent, translucent

-luphatha : hollow-bottomed, grooved (as some bottles, porridge plates, etc.)

-luphenge : wide-spreading, broad, broad-brimmed

-luphengelezi : wide-spreading

-luphumpu : wild, unrestrained

-luphuya : destitute, impoverished, bereaved

-luquntu : stunted, short, scrubby

-luqwaku : hlonipha term for -lukhuni

-luqwatha : bare, denuded, desert.

-luqwathule : bare, desert, denuded

lusilili : slowly, reluctantly, hesitatingly

-lusilili : slow, reluctant, hesitating

-lusizi : sad, grieved, afflicted, sorrowful, miserable; in trouble, in difficulty

-luswampu : twisted, crooked

-luthezo : hlonipha term for -lukhuni

-luthuqasana : dust-coloured

-luthuqusana : dust-coloured, faded

-luthuqusi : dusty, covered in dust

-luthuthu : smoky, hazy, greyish

-luthuthuva : sandy-coloured; discoloured

-lutshekeza : sloppy, liquid

lutsheku : aslant, in leaning position

-lutsheku : slanting, aslant, inclining, leaning

-luvivi : faint, indistinct; lukewarm

-luzica : tough, tenacious, pliant, supple

-luzizima : hazy

-luzwambuzwambu : tall, thin-bodied, emaciated