The Zulu language is rich in proverbs, popular metaphorical sayings that “express a truth based on a shared experience of humanity” (Wikipedia.org). As is the case with many other languages, people often confuse Zulu proverbs (izaga) with idioms (izisho), but there are some basic rules to help you tell the difference between the two.
One of the telltale differences is that an idiom normally starts with a verb prefixed by ‘uku’; whereas a proverb doesn’t change its tense even if you’re talking about something that happened decades ago. Zulu proverbs also tend to have a certain metrical form to them – a rhythm that is different to normal everyday Zulu, and they are also often very economical with words, which again contributes to the rhythm of the language e.g. “You do not teach a giraffe to run”.
Below are some examples of Zulu proverbs, along with their figurative translations. For a more complete understanding order the book, Zulu Proverbs, by CLS Nyembezi on Takealot.com.
- Ingane engakhali ifela embelekweni (a child that does not cry dies in the sling); i.e. if you do not voice your problems/views you will not be noticed.
- Akukho ndlovu yasindwa ngumboko wayo (the elephant trunk can never be too heavy for the elephant); i.e. the elephant is solely responsible for lifting up and carrying its own trunk – when something is your responsibility you have to believe that you have the power to handle it, no matter what.
- Uncukubili njeng’empisi (you are two-coloured like a hyena); i.e. you say different things to different people in order to get their approval instead of speaking and behaving honestly.
- Ukhala ngaso linye (he cries with one eye); i.e. when a person pretends to be sorry when he/she is not.
- Ubukhali nganxanye njengomese (you are sharp on one side like a knife); i.e. you are clever, but still not all that you would wish us to think of you.