Finery / -hlob*

I arrive at my lesson a little early, and catch my student unawares. While he gets his mind in order, and I unpack my stuff, I offer him tea. Yes, I know I’m the guest – but I make myself at home wherever I go. Boarding-school vibes.

I say: ufuna nhloboni yethiye?

He understands the bread of the sentence, but not the meat. The word ‘nhloboni’ is incomprehensible to him. So we embark on an umbhudulo. Having translated my question (“you-want sort-what of-tea?” or “what sort of tea do you want?”), and while making him some red-bush tea, I start with the verb.

ukuhloba – to put on finery, dress up, adorn oneself, attire oneself; to sprout or put forth shoots; to become curdled.

We explore the rest of the umbhudulo once seated, with Vilakazi and Doke open in front of us, starting with i(li)hlobo. Of course, like i(li)bele (I owe you a blog about this word – it’s fascinating), there are two very different tonal patterns (and thus two different words) spelt in exactly the same way. Here we go:

i(li)hlobo ( [no plural] – Summer, the summer season; early summer mealies or pumpkins.

i(li)hlobo (2.6.3-8.9) [plural amahlobo] – article of finery for adornment; something fashionable.

We discuss the fact the the first word is more common, and that it has one of the more regular tonal patterns for nouns – rising initially and then bottoming out on the last two syllables. We also look at the fact that the word for Summer comes from the fact that the trees have put on all their finery (after the winter nakedness), and as such one type of tree can be told from another. And then we shift, to look at the complex solid hloba thing – isihlobo.

isihlobo – a relative, a blood relation {113 specific terms for relatives}

A relative is a complex solid because there are a number of constructed modes of behaviour involved in being related. It really is complex, as you can see from the myriad of highly specific terms for different family members. But what does it have to do with decorating? Basically, it’s the group of people who decorate themselves the way that you do. And this comes out in the other nouns from this isiqu:

inhlobo – a species, kind, class, denomination, sample; a style or method

u(lu)hlobo – a genus, species or breed; a kind, sort or variety; a nationality, a race

umhlobo – a friend, an acquaintance; a relative, kinsman or relation; a race of mankind, a nationality

ubuhlobo – friendship; relationship

If you look at all of these through the lens of the izigaba zamabizo, with the meanings of ukuhloba in mind, it makes a bit more sense:

inhlobo – the seasonal / varying similarly decorated thing

u(lu)hlobo – the complex fluid / mutable similarly decorated thing

umhlobo – the simple solid similarly decorated thing

ubuhlobo – the essence of being decorated (in a similar way)

It’s at this point that I point out a small oddity in this list – the fact the umhlobo is not in the human noun class at all, but is rather a non-human solid. It has an imi- plural, imihlobo – like a few other notables such as umlozi and umkhovu. I advise him to be careful when working with the word, and avoid humanising it.

We practise using the various words for another ten minutes, briefly look at the umbhudulo for ukuhlela (to be unpacked another time) and then shift gears and begin on passives. They take us the remaining half an hour, and then I enter the darkness for the final leg of my journey home, satisfied by this exploration of a single root.

Feel free to use this umbhudulo to explain the isiqu HLOB* to anyone who cares to hear. I hope it helps. If you have any suggestions for other imibhudulo, let me know in the comments.



Hláka – Word Route

Sometime this week, I was listening to Ezisematheni (stories-on-the-saliva or on-the-tip-of-the-tongue) when I heard the following phrase:

i-NFP iyahlakaza izinhlaka ezintsha e-KZN

the NFP is hlakaza-ing new izin-hlaka in KZN

So of course my first thought was this: there must be an ideophone lurking at the heart of both those words. And I was right.

Hláka denotes the following 4 things:

1. scattering, spreading about, disorder, disarrangement

2. breaking down, demolishing

3. exposing, divulging


4. wisdom, cleverness, mental ability

This one ideophone has 3 derived verbs (at least) and 9 derived nouns. It’s even so cool that there is 2 other ideophones derived from it!

So let’s start with the verbs:

hlakahla: dismember (animal), take to pieces (house, piece of furniture); open out, expose to mental view, make clear to the intellect, analyse or solve a problem

hlakaka: scatter, break up in all directions (as a crowd); be exposed, divulged (as a secret)

hlakaza: scatter, spread about, put in disorder, disarrange, disperse; break down, demolish, knock to pieces; expose, divulge, publish

So we now know what the verb means… or do we? The beautiful Vilakazi and Doke dictionary I use regularly was last edited in 1958, and so sometimes isn’t quite up to speed with advances in terminology.

For that I also have Mbatha’s (2006) Isichazamazwi SesiZulu, which adds a definition of hlakaza as follows:

ukusakaza kugcwele yonke indawo (e.g. isizwe wasihlakaza ngezimpi)

to disperse so that everywhere is full as a result (e.g. the nation was scattered with armies)

So what they were meaning was that the NFP was dispersing izinhlaka across KZN. Now for the nouns (and hopefully we’ll find in-hlaka or ulu-hlaka in there somewhere!):

ili-hlaka: beestings, milk of the cow for the first few days after calving

in-hlaka: gum (from trees), resin; glue; cut glass; transparent glass beads

ulu-hlaka: reed-mat (i.e. a number of long reeds bound together by fibres, used for wrapping round foodstuffs, a human corpse, etc.); stretcher, bier; small hut, or kraal partition, built of a fence of reed-work (used for keeping calves or beer in); a travelling herbalist, who caries his medicines with him.

ili-hlakahlaka: tatters; anything torn and in rags (as clothes, a sleeping mat falling to bits, thatch on a hut); untidiness, dirty disorder (as rubbish lying about a hut, or dried food and dirt on the unwashed face of a child)

in-hlakanhlaka: tatters, anything torn or ragged; things lying about in disorder; disorderly conduct; liquid food with non-absorbent particles floating in it; branny substance; bad pumpkins which do not cook properly; coarsely ground grain

ili-hlakani: a clever, crafty, cunning person

ama-hlakavu: tatters, thing all fallen to bits, in rags (as a worn-out sleeping mat, garment or dilapidated hut

in-hlakavu: tattered garment or mat

isi-hlakavu: tattered garment or mat

So I guessed that they weren’t talking about glass beads, and went for ulu-hlaka as the root of the izinhlaka used above. But this still doesn’t help – why are the NFP dispersing reed-mats, or travelling herbalists, or small huts? Once more to Mbatha – but there’s no difference in the definition! So I turn to Nyembezi’s (1992) Isichazimazwi Sanamuhla Nangomuso (the word-explainer of today and tomorrow) – only to find exactly the same definition.

At a loss, I turn to the two ideophones that are derived from hláka:

hlákahla: of analysing, wisdom


hlákalala: of disorderly confusion, scattering about, commotion

Still not helping, until I took a closer look at the definition of u(lu)hlaka – a kraal-partition could be generalised as ‘a section’ or ‘a regional office’, couldn’t it? So you can translate the sentence as:

the NFP are scattering new stretcher-mats in KZN

the NFP are demolishing new small huts in KZN

the NFP are divulging new travelling herbalists in KZN


the NFP are deploying new regional offices in KZN

Much as the other translations are interesting, context dictates that the last one is the most probable one – but there is no way to capture the ambiguity (or the unspoken attitude to the NFP) of the isiZulu in the translation.

PS. the verb for ‘be clever’, hlakanipha, is derived from this same root. The reversive form of the verb hlakaza, hlakula, means ‘weed with a hoe’ or ‘unscatter’ or ‘tidy up a mess’.

Word Route – notha

Does an etymological difference make any difference to the perception of a thing?

This is the question I drove home with after Thursday morning’s lesson with Paul. I had introduced a discussion I’d begun with Claire, about the etymology of the word ‘economy’ and its isiZulu translation ‘umnotho’.

‘Economy’ is traditionally derived from the Greek oiko-nomia or house-ordering. Xenophon’s Oikonomia is a set of instructions to a new wife on the best way to order her new household, complete with tips on managing unruly slaves. It has a cognate meaning of ‘thrift’.

‘Umnotho’ is similarly transparent – derived from the verb ‘notha’, meaning ‘be well off, be comfortable, be well-to-do’ as well as ‘be rich, yield plentifully’, and has the general meaning of ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’. It has cognates relating to ‘objects that spring back when prodded’, as well as unotha or ‘Native hemp, cannabis sativa, of the best quality’.

So English uses a word which is not always etymologically clear to users, but which means ‘ordering-one’s-household’, and the amaZulu have a word meaning ‘the-soft-and-springy-richly-yielding-wealthy-stuff’ (which is quite clear to users, etymologically).

Does this fundamental difference in etymology make any difference to the perception of ‘economy’?

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.

*hlung {word route}

hlungThere are two separate ideas that converge in this word, along with the strange shapes that they make with your mouth when you say it.

The first idea is that of ‘winnowing’ or sifting, from the ur-Bantu stem -ĸuŋga, meaning ‘sift’. And the second centres on what I would argue is the nominalised form of the first stem, -ĸuŋgu – which means ‘bitterness’ or ‘poison’.

Colloquial usage tells any speaker of isiZulu that when you say ‘kubuhlungu’, you mean ‘it’s sore’. It’s an essential phrase for any child growing up in a bilingual family. But what are you actually saying? ‘it is bitter, as though I have been struck by a poison arrow’.

So how does ‘bitterness / poison’ relate to ‘sifting’ things?

Perhaps the idea lies in the fact that some processing needs to occur before the poison can be useful – some sort of sifting in the form of concoction or distillation, to separate the good from the bad, the poisonous from the curative. It could equally lie in the fact that knowing poison from good herbs (and foodstuffs) could be difficult – especially when gathering from wild places, as is done when gathering umfino (‘wild spinach’) – and thus involved ‘sifting out’ the dangerous herbs from those that were edible.

Because there are many botanical, organic or chemical things that derive from this one stem – of the 25 associated words or stems, 16 are words relating to medicine, botany or chemistry. And these are words that are derived from either stem.

In terms of medical application, the terms derived from both stems focus on two aspects – poison (and poisonous concoctions, venom, shrubs etc.) and antidote for those poisons. Much like the Greek term pharmaka (poison/antidote).

But there is still the matter of bitterness, and of pain. That they are like poison to the body, needing to be balanced by other things.

Word Route – *hlang


When it comes to this word, there are two interesting aspects – the way that the noun is used relative to the creation myths of the amaZulu, and the link with the verb *hlangana. The pictures created by these two aspects are intriguing and evocative – you’ll see why.

At the heart of today’s word route follows the root *hlang, which makes up nouns exclusively in its simple form:

i(li)hlanga is a harvested field in which the cornstalks and stubble are still standing, or a ‘wasteful giver’

inhlanga is a thicket of reeds, an incision (for medicinal purposes, such as cupping blood), an incised pattern (whether on the face, body, or pottery), a pattern in beadwork and (finally) a trademark or brand

u(lu)hlanga carries on the meanings of both, in that it is ‘dry stalk (of mealies, sorghum etc.)’, a ‘reed or reed snuffbox’, a tube (term applied to the throat passage, a pipe, etc), the ‘original stem or stock’, the ‘ancestry, genealogy or dynasty’ of a person, or a tribal or medical incision.

Finally, we get to umhlanga (the much mis-pronounced um-shlah-ngah of the annual visitors to the KZN coast) – a reed or reeds, or a reed bed or reedy placy in a river.

The picture from these words is quite clear – the shifting whispering pattern of jagged cutting leaves and standing stalks, the voices of empty reeds when the wind plays in them, the place from which the tall brown men and women of the amaZulu people stepped and divided to fill their portion of the earth.

The picture deepens when you look at the verb, *hlangana, meaning:

a) to come together, meet together, assemble

b) to meet with, come across, come upon

c) to join, unite, come together, close up (as a healing wound does)

d) to be in close contact, be thick together

e) to be complete

f) to be in agreement, fit in, correspond, associate together

g) to join in conflict, encounter one another

h) to have sex

When you look at this verb in the light of the meanings of its root (excuse the pun), it is clear that the verbal metaphors link to the idea of the reeds as the place of union, and the images of people as reeds broken off from that single stem, meeting again to reform the clumps from which they were broken (see the Word Route for Dábu).

This is truly one of the more central isiZulu roots to remember.

Monoconsonantal verbs in isiZulu

*ba, *fa, *ga, *hlwa, *kha, *lwa, *ma, *mba, *na, *nya, *pha, *sa, *sha, *sho, *tha, *thi,  *va, *wa, *ya, *za & *zwa

These are the smallest verbs that there are in isiZulu, although many of them have a huge impact on the language. I have called them ‘monoconsonantal’ because the meaning doesn’t actually lie in the -a that suffixes them all (apart from *sho and *thi) – it lies in that single consonantal sound at their heart.

The asterisk on the front of these verbs means that they do not exist on their own, but must be joined to a concord (isiZulu has a system of alliterative agreement, which uses a modification of the prefix of the noun to show which noun is the Subject, which the Object, or which is being Adjectivally, Relatively, Enumeratively or Possessively qualified – needs another blog) or Noun Class Prefix (also needs another blog) in order to make meaning, e.g.

-fa (*die) > ukufa (death / to die) or ngiyafa (I am dying) or angifi (I am not dying)

These small verbs shed some light on the important parts of the language. Some of them are highly ‘irregular’ – meaning that they have remained unchanged while the rest of the language has changed around them. In this list, *sho and *thi are the biggest culprits.

So… what do they mean?

*ba means ‘become’ or ‘be’ (though used in a very different way from English ‘to be’)

*fa means ‘die’ (see the Word Route blog on *fa for more)

*ga is the hlonipha term for the more usual verb *ya (see below)

*hlwa is the verb for ‘becoming dark’, ‘becoming dusk’, ‘being eclipsed’ or ‘becoming mystified, stupefied or at a loss what to do’ (one of my personal favourites, the perfect form -hlwile is used derogatorily when referring to someone who is a few sandwiches short of a picnic basket)

*kha is an interesting one – ‘to pick flowers, to pluck or gather fruit’, ‘dip up or draw water’ or ‘take a fancy to, be attracted to something’

*lwa has a less pleasant meaning – ‘to fight, battle with, contend, struggle’.

*ma is quite a crucial little verb, much like the Greek histemi, with separate transitive and intransitive meanings: Intransitive – a) to stand, stand erect, stand still, be stationary, stop, halt, be settled; b) to be constant, persistent or continue in something, be in vogue, be of a certain disposition; c) present oneself for acceptance in marriage, as a girl in a strange umuzi. Transitive – stand in the way, act as an obstacle.

*mba is the nucleus of the name for one of my favourite foods (amazaMBane – potatoes), coming from the meaning of ‘dig, dig a hole, dig up, excavate, root up (as a pig), burrow (as an ant-bear)’, though not from the secondary meaning of ‘digging the toes in (as when running hard), speeding off’.

*na is the verb for rain, and is one which for many years I thought was *yana, since I only ever heard it as liyana (it is raining). In addition to denoting ‘pouring down with rain’, it is another hlonipha term for *ya (see below)

*nya is a verb which pops up in most languages at this basic level – meaning ‘pass excreta’ or, more colloquially, ‘shit’. As the dictionary points out, “it is more polite to use the phrase ukuya ngaphandle (to go outside)”.

*pha is the root of common South African names like Sipho (isiPHo – Gift) and Siphokazi (Female Gift), and means ‘give, present, bestow, donate’, as well as (inexplicably) ‘thin out (thick growth, crops etc.)’.

*sa is at the heart of the word for tomorrow – ukusasa in isiZulu – and denotes the rising or dawning of the sun, as well as the metaphorical applications of ‘clearing up’, ‘becoming bright of intellect or becoming intelligent’ and ‘maturing’.

*sha has an interesting link to the adjective -sha (new), in that it means ‘be on fire’ or ‘burn’, as well as ‘dry up’, ‘become hoarse’ or ‘get into an awkward or uncomfortable position’.

And, as we get to the last 8, we hit the first of the two ‘highly irregular’ verbs – *sho.

Basically, *sho means ‘Say’. There is a distinction to be made here, which only makes sense when seen with *thi – which also, incidentally, means ‘Say’. *sho is usually not followed by the actual words uttered, and so is closest to the English verbs ‘speak’ or ‘utter’ (in their intransitive senses). *thi, on the other hand, is usually followed by the actual words that someone uttered, “and not merely some reference to or description of them”. Both verbs have the secondary meaning of ‘mean, intend, imagine, think etc.’ – the etc. being used to stand for anything that someone can say. They then each have many specialised meanings, as one would expect from a verb of saying. These specialised meanings will be the subject of another blog at some point.

Moving on, *tha is a wonderfully economic little syllable denoting ‘naming’ as well as ‘pouring into a vessel with a small aperture’, ‘injecting an enema’ and ‘selecting or picking out the best’. It will also have to be the subject of a Word Route at some point.

*va is a verb that I was not aware of until yesterday, but which is equally poetic – ‘to yield abundantly, increase in numbers’, ‘to exceed, or exceed 10’, ‘to set, thicken’ and ‘to be kind or amiable’.

*wa is a word that has been with me since childhood, accident-prone as I was – ‘to fall’ as well as ‘to make a mistake, be misled, make a slip’.

*ya (the one with many hlonipha versions) means ‘go to’ or ‘go towards’, and is easy to remember because it is the primary indicator of the ‘going’ tense – present definite (e.g. ngiYAfa – ‘I’m-going-die’ or ‘I am dying’).


The opposite of *ya is *za, a little verb meaning ‘come to’ which also forms part of a tense indicator – the immediate future tense or ‘the time that is coming’, with a small modification (e.g. ngiZOfa – ‘I’m-coming-die’ or ‘I shall die’).

Finally we are left with my favourite of all of these – *zwa. This little fragment of language means ‘perceive’, and can describe any one of the five (or more) senses. It also means ‘understand’, ‘live or be alive’ and ‘be sound or in good condition’. Finally, with a reflexive, it means ‘to feel self-important’ (literally? to feel oneself). ;)mediate future tense or ‘the time that is coming’, with a small modification (e.g. ngiZOfa – ‘I’m-coming-die’ or ‘I shall die’).