What makes your language rich? For me it’s the (Zulu) proverbs & idioms!

The Zulu Nation is very rich when it comes to Proverbs and Idioms. Proverbs and Idioms are some of the language features that help us glean insights and wisdom about our heritage and life during pre-colonial times, they often carry deeper meanings about events of the past, serve as warnings to help us avoid (bad) history from repeating itself.

I often use Zulu proverbs to substantiate my argument or to emphasize my point, and often times I have to explain the meanings, which shouldn’t be the case when I’m speaking to a grown up Zulu whose mother tongue is IsiZulu.
In order to avoid these distinctive language features from totally diminishing, it is my plea that we use forums such as this to keep all that is our culture and heritage alive and burning!

A collection of a few Zulu proverbs and meanings;

1. Uthanda ukubukwa njengesiyephu – He likes to be looked at like a long-hairy goat
Meaning: He likes all the attention unto himself
(My assumption is that hairy goats were very rare and special at the time)

2. Ikhiwane elihle ligcwala izibungu – The nice fig is often full of worms.
Meaning / English equivalent: All that glitters is not gold

3. Enethunga ayisengeli phansi – He who has a milking-pail should not be obliged to milk on the
ground.
Meaning: He who has own resources should not have to suffer because he has lent his resources to another

4. Isitsha esihle asidleli – A nice plate is not long eaten off from.
Proverb used to lament the damage done to any nice thing or death of a dear child. A fitting phrase when referring to death of a good person could be “Gone too soon”

5. Akukho qili lazikhotha emhlane – there is no cunning person whoever licked himself on the back.
Said of someone who has tried some trickery beyond his cunning and been caught
Meaning / English equivalent: There is no paragon of excellence

6. Uphakathi komhlane nembeleko – he is between the back and the sack (that carries a child on the back)
Meaning: He/she is between the comfortable circumstances

7. Akulahlwa mbeleko ngakufelwa – The child’s sack is not thrown away after the death of one child (Because there might be another child forth-coming and sack required carrying him/her)
Meaning: Never despair in adversities

8. Kuhlonishwa kabili – Respect is two way
Meaning: if you want respect, you’ve got to give it

9. Libunjwa liseva. The day is worked while it is still fresh
Meaning / English equivalent: Make hay while the sun shines

10. Ikhotha eyikhothayo engayikhothi iyayikhahlela – The cow licks one that licks her
Meaning: People help those who return the favour

11. Iso liwela umfula ugcwele – The eye crosses the full river
Meaning: A desire goes beyond the possible

12. Iqaqa alizizwa ukunuka – no polecat ever smells its own stink.
Meaning: Nobody recognizes his own fault

13. Akukho mango ongenaliba – There is no hillside without a grave
Meaning: Death is unavoidable, and therefore will find you where ever you go

14. Isikhuni sibuya nomkhwezeli – the lit fire-brand has returned with one tending fire
Meaning: If you play with fire, you could get (your fingers) burnt / He (trouble-maker) got what deserves

15. Ukhuni luzal’umlotha – the fire-log brings about ashes
Meaning: He brings forth a worthless thing or child

16. Amaqili kathengani – The cunning men do not deal with each other
Meaning: People that know each other’s cunning practices / shrewdness avoid each other

17. Uchakide uhlolile imamba yalukile – the weasel is at ease because the mamba has gone out
Meaning: When the cat’s away the mice will play

18. Ukubona kanye ukubona kabili – Once beaten twice shy

19. Amanxiwa Kamili Mbuya
Meaning: A rolling stone gathers no moss
Could be used to refer to / warn someone who changes jobs a lot

20. Uphembela emoyeni – He lights fire in the wind
Meaning: He favours strangers (whom he might never see) than his own people

21. Udla indlu yakho njengentwala – You eat your hut (hair) like a lice
One who destroys the same thing he benefits from just as the lice eats the hair it accommodates
Meaning: One who bites the hand that feeds him

22. Akukho nkwali yaphendela enye – There is no partridge that scratches for another
Meaning: Each one must look out for himself / do things for himself

23. Ingwe Idla Ngamabala – A leopard eats by means of its spots
Meaning: Each person survives off his/her talent

24. Inkunzi isematholeni (the bull is among the calves)
Meaning: Leaders of tomorrow come from the youth

I would be very interested to hear about those special characters (phrases, sayings, proverbs, idioms etc.) that make your language more interesting and distinctive.

Do share!

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9 comments

  1. Dear Soka Mthembu,
    USoka Mthembu othandekayo,
    your proverb page is very interesting. So may I ask you a question about Zulu proverbs? In Blogs etc. one often encounters the proverb “Ithi ingacaba ithambo ijwayele”. But what does it mean?

    • Hi Christoph,
      Thank you for your feedback. Will try and answer the best I can. I hope it makes sense.

      It, (a dog) that eats/scrapes a bone (at a certain home/place) gets accustomed to it / frequents the place from which it found a bone.

      Proverb can be used to refer to a person whom you do favours once, and as results he/she keeps on returning for more favours.

      It basically means you can’t ask people for favours in a row and expect them to comply each time.
      Cheers
      Soka

  2. Love this page. Just to share one my favourites…”ayidumi kanje mayizohamba” with reference to a car,it literally says “it does not not start/ run like this if it will go”

    It is used to refer to negative activities that will not result in success.

    Keep up the awesome work.

  3. Thanx a lot these idioms are splendid ….i’m in seventh heaven bcoz I’ m writing isiZulu P3 and English P3 today

  4. Awesome blog, I’ve always heard Gatsheni on isibaya say “uzoyikhotha imbhenge yomile” can you provide some clarity on this proverb?

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