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.


umbhikisho / protest

I just read that the SABC will no longer show footage of violent protests. I almost have no words. I understand that there might be issues around showing violence in general, but there is also the imperative to report accurately on what is happening in South Africa every day.

It happens in many many parts of the country – so many that on some days the people I work with can’t even get to the schools they’re working in, as a result of roads being blocked and black plumes rising into the air – and it happens every day, and has been happening every day for years.


It’s in the simple solid noun class, along with the words for noise (umsindo), fire (umlilo) and spirit (umoya). It is a basic element, and has the same shape every time it is repeated. The plural is imibhikisho. This word and its root-verb do not appear in Doke’s dictionary of 1958 – which is in itself historically interesting. Both do occur in Mbatha (2010), as one would expect:

ukubhikisha (isenzo) [-el-; -is-; -w-] – ukwenza isenzo esikhombisa ukungeneliswa okuthile. Abasebenzi kade bebhikisha befuna ukukhushulelwa amaholo.

ukubhikisha (verb) [applied; causative; passive] – to do a deed which shows dissatisfaction with something. The workers were protesting for a long time, wanting an increase in their pay.


umbhikisho (ibizo) – isenzo esikhombisa ukungeneliswa okuthile.

umbhikisho (noun) – a deed which shows dissatisfaction with something.

I think that, if you cast your eyes over those definitions, you will see why this is the word used when talking about protest, at least when speaking directly. It’s frequently paired up with descriptive phrases:

umbhikisho onodlame – a violent protest

umbhikisho wabafundi basenyuvesi – a university students’ protest

umbhikisho wezidingongqangi – a basic-service-delivery protest

It’s also used as a verb-phrase:

abafundi basenyuvesi babhikishela imfundo yamahhala – the university students are protesting for free education

amalungu omphakathi ayabhikisha – the community members are protesting.

But, as I’m sure you’ve realised, isiZulu is rather fond of both euphemism and idiomatic expression. Let’s start hysteron proteron – idiomatic expression. The main one here is ukuvuka umbhejazane – literally “to awaken a tendency to vicious inclination”. Let’s unpack:

ukuvuka: as seen in Treason Season, the word has 5 different non-idiomatic meanings. Briefly: wake up, awake from sleep; be resurrected; get up, rise; blow vigorously like the wind, rage like a storm, get into a rage or temper; attack something continually.

umbhejazane: a tendency to evil, passion, or vicious inclination (compare with ugovana)

The word umbhejazane in the idiom is probably being used adverbially, as ukuvuka is usually intransitive. For the transitive version (wake something up), isiZulu uses ukuvusa. What that means is that the community is the thing doing the ukuvuka, and the character of that action is umbhejazane. In terms of the origin of the word, it seems to come originally from one of my favourite izenzukuthi – bhee (9-9), which is the sound:

of flaring up of fire, of roaring of fire in grass; of raging temper; of the spreading of an epidemic; of the burning sensation of condiments in the mouth.

It is linked to many different nouns and verbs, and one in particular has several nouns in different izigaba which are very like umbhejazane –

isibhekazane: a raging, impetuous activity (as of a raging epidemic of disease or passion), a wild uncontrollable mental impulse to evil. uvuke isibhekazane sokweba = he is overcome with an uncontrollable impulse for stealing.

u(lu)bhekazane: an ungovernable impulse to evil

umbhekazane: an ungovernable impulse to evil.

So, overall, when someone uses the phrase “ukuvuka umbhejazane”, the images of ungovernable fires spreading across SA’s communities is not far off the idiomatic expression.

Which brings us to the euphemism, apropos of the SABC’s decision. You see, there are some ways in which it is impossible NOT to report on protests in South Africa – particularly when it comes to traffic. In the days when I still used to listen to uKhozi FM, I particularly liked the traffic reports (closely followed by the weather, in terms of linguistic interest), as they were full of idiom and euphemism and proverbs. These I will deal with in another post, but for now let’s look at how the SABC’s traffic reports used to refer to protests:

ngaseMbumbulu, kunesimo semfuno lapho – hlab’udlule njengenalidi.

near Mbumbulu, there is a situation of need there – stab and pass through it like a needle.

You see, even though the newsreader didn’t (or was ordered not to) say the word for protest, whether directly or idiomatically, they still managed it – isimo semfuno.

isimo: a form, shape, nature, character, situation.

imfuno: {not in Vilakazi 1958} the seasonal thing which is desired or wanted or looked for or needed.

Which ends up meaning something like “there are people burning tyres (and other, more permanent things), blocking roads, stoning cars and generally behaving in an ungovernable fashion as a result of the fact that what they want is not being given to them”.

And that pretty accurately describes SA’s culture of protest.

So, SABC, rather than adopting the “I’m not going to give these attention-seekers any airplay” approach, perhaps consider that NOT broadcasting the protests is an undemocratic act. That accountability to ALL of South Africa’s citizens, including those who are violently and openly dissatisfied with the government, is a basic principle of a national broadcaster.

You, and the president who has you on a short leash, are deaf to the cries of the citizens who put you in power. And the protests will get louder and louder until you can hear them clearly.

c(w)asa – discourses of discrimination

Discrimination, segregation, Apartheid, xenophobia, prejudice, bias, racism, sexism, ageism, exclusion, stereotyping, profiling – this is a set of words tainted by many different instances of humanity’s only basic commonality, the urge to identify the other and be as horrible as one can possibly be towards him or her. Each of these words has a long history, with all of them going back to Latin and Greek in their etymology. That is the origin of their air of science – English-speakers perceive Latinate or Hellenic words as being somehow more authoritative, indicative of both a higher register and an elevated social class.

But it’s all just smoke and mirrors. They all mean this: irrational hatred and fear and disrespect of the other.

Somehow what comes to mind Catullus 85:

odi et amo – quare id faciam, fortasse requiris

I hate and I love – how do I do this, perhaps you ask

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I don’t know, but I am beginning to feel it, and I am in torture

Yet even that lofty sentiment doesn’t show the truth. The truth is that we know why we act this way – we are negative towards the other because they are not us.

NgesiZulu, there is an equally wide range of different words to denote these things. Some of the words have the same stench as the English words, and some of them don’t. As is always the case with isiZulu, there are a number of different meanings for any given word – and these give some insight into the metaphors being deployed to describe the concept.

The first word in this exploration of human hatred of the other is one whose stench still pervades much of public discourse ngesiZulu here eNingizimu Afrika – ukubandlulula. It is derived from an isenzukuthi (a sound-effect or ideophone) – bándlu, denoting the action of separating, rejecting or differentiating. Here’s what the verb means:

1. disown entirely, cast off altogether

2. suspend from membership

3. discriminate, show partiality

In the Isichazimazwi sanamuhla nangomuso of Solwazi Nyembezi, the definition is deceptively simple:

ukungaphathi ngokufana, ukungakhombisi umoya ofanayo kubo bonke

not to treat in the same manner, not to show the same umoya to all people

The most famous derivative of this verb is u(lu)Bandlululo, Apartheid – the complex fluid thing involving the casting off, suspension from membership and discrimination against abantu abansundu here in Mzansi. Nyembezi has this gem to add to the idea of ubandlululo:

…yisenzo sokukhetha iphela emasini

…it is the act of picking a cockroach out of amasi

I’d say that’s one of the most graphic description of the perception of segregation I have ever heard. And yet this word doesn’t only mean Apartheid. It is used in a wider sense to denote any kind of discrimination, although as I said earlier it still carries iphunga of Apartheid.

So what other words are there ngesiZulu to denote this action, without the taint of Apartheid? There are three related words, ranging in difficulty of pronunciation and nuance of meaning. Here’s the first one, with its clearly visible base-metaphors:


1. smash, break to bits (specifically used of something hard being smashed)

2. eat amasi plain, without mixing in any crushed mealies

3. eat or harvest green mealies before they have hardened

4. differentiate against, avoid, exclude

Where the word ‘prejudice’ has the idea of judging someone before (pre-) you know them more deeply, isiZulu denotes this with the idea of eating something without waiting until it is more fully able to be eaten. So every time you differentiate against someone, you are eating them without waiting for them to be fully ripe or properly mixed into a more nutritious entity. You’re also, incidentally, smashing something solid to pieces.

There are two related verbs which abandon the first three meanings and focus only on the third. These two are used more nowadays, with various izimpambosi (see here to find out what these are) to inflect the meaning. Here they are:

cwasa / xwasa

1. exclude from any right, privilege or advantage

2. differentiate against, dislike

As you can see, they keep none of the metaphor and focus only on the basic idea – exclusion and dislike. It is possible that cwasa, at least, is derived from an isihlonipho for the verb ukulwa (to fight). That would make this verb mean ’cause enmity’, which is pretty accurate.

NgesiZulu, you use these basic verbs with some adverbial additives to encompass the full nuance of all those Latinate and Hellenic words from the beginning of this article:

ukucwasa ngokwebala – discrimination according to colour (racism)

ukucwasa ngokobulili – discrimination according to gender (sexism)

ukucwasa ngobuzwe – discrimination according to nationality (xenophobia)

ukucwasa ngobudala – discrimination according to age (ageism)

ukucwasa ngokolimi – discrimination according to language

ukucwasa ngokwenkolo – discrimination according to belief

So these are the basic ideas behind humanity’s hatred for the other. And yet it still feels too clinical. None of these words contains the ubulwane (brutality) and inzondo (hatred) that rear their ugly heads in the looting of shops owned by those from other countries, the destruction of monuments to horses, the pouring of excrement on the precious things of the other, the beheading of members of another religion or the use of hate-filled words to incite violence. Writing these things down leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And it is cold comfort that the oldest source for isiZulu I have, Vilakazi and Doke’s isiZulu-English Dictionary (1958), has this example sentence under the entry for the verb cwasa:

Kujwayelekile ukuba izizwe zicwase ezinye

It is usual for nations to differentiate against foreigners.

I’m done.