How would you describe a rhinoceros? Maybe as “a large unwieldy quadruped with a horn or two horns on the nose and thick folded and plated skin”.
Likewise, would you say the hippo is “a large pachydermatous quadruped inhabiting rivers, etc”? Obvious really, but how about the origins and meanings of the words ‘rhinoceros’ and ‘hippopotamus’?
Well Shaka and his lads never studied much Latin or Greek and the Concise Oxford was a little out of reach, so they came up with the novel idea of using a noticeable characteristic to describe what they saw or heard. Thus, the hippo was simply “the fat one” (iMvubu).
They also noticed two types of rhino – the white one was “the bulky one” (uMKhombe) whilst his black cousin was “the vicious one” (uBejane). Presumably it was experience that led them to call the elephant iNdlovu – “the trample”. Certainly it is more characterful than “a huge four-footed pachyderm with a proboscis and long curved ivory tusks”.
The Zulus’ poetically-descriptive observance of nature is well epitomised in their interpretation of bird behaviour. Thus the call of the wide ranging black ibis, the Hadeda Ibis to Europeans, is more characteristically rendered as Njahamba (“I travel”), thrice repeated. The red-chested cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou in Afrikaans) was known to announce the approach of spring with phezukomkhono (“on your shoulder”), thus telling the farmers to take hoes and prepare their fields.
The haunting, poetic imagery of the Zulu language is probably best found in place names. The Mngeni river, for example, is so named because it is “the place of the acacia trees” – the dominant species throughout its valley. The greatest river in Zululand is the Thukela, which means ‘startling’. It runs through a majestic, rugged valley overlooked by high peaks – awe-inspiring and indeed really startling to behold.