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The Shona Language: Is it marginalised or just dying?

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Many people do not know this but Shona is the most spoken L1 Bantu Language; that is as a first language. According to Wikipedia, there are over 535 Bantu Languages spoken from Cameroon, Southeast Africa, Central African countries like the Congo as well as Southern Africa.

If these are grouped according to mutually intelligible languages (i.e. the other guy garbles to you in his native tongue and you nod in understanding and reply in your native tongue and you both understand each other) the number falls to about 250. This is because some of these languages are counted as dialects, although it is often difficult to distinguish between languages and dialects.

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My point is that Shona is an important African language owing to its wide use. It is not as important as the Swahili language which has, according to Ethnologue, close to 140 million speakers in Africa.

Most of these are learners, that is, they speak Swahili as a second language which is why it is the official language of at least three countries and often used as a the lingua franca of most Central African regions. More people speak Shona than Zulu or Ndebele or any other African language you can think of.

More people speak Shona than Zulu or Ndebele or any other African language you can think of. Ethnologue calls it a dominant language that is understood by a considerable number of people.

Yet the language that is spoken by most people at home seems to have been relegated to the fringes of our lives. If something is important it is done in English even among people who speak Shona fluently among themselves.

I imagine the same is true for Ndebele speakers, but I cannot speak to this since I can only speak a few words of Ndebele.

Most, well, I mean all, important business meetings I have attended seem to be conducted in English with the Shona Language reserved for when the meetings break down and people start shouting at each other. If and when the meetings break down, people start shouting obscenities at one another.

The same is true when it comes to technology. When was the last time you wrote a Shona email to someone? How many Shona WhatsApp text messages have you send to your friend? How many Tweets? How many times have you contributed to the Shona Wikipedia? As far as I could find, it is a sad little place that is hardly ever visited especially considering how many people who speak Shona go online every day.

There are a number of useful Shona pages/websites out there: for example there are several useful Shona to English dictionaries ( Dokpro and Mashumba’s dictionaries are just examples), language tools like the Verbix that aim to help foreigners learn Shona and a couple of Shona news sites and Blogs notably Kwayedza and VOA news.

The only place online that I could find widespread use of Shona was on Facebook where people use the Language extensively for things like telling jokes to serious subjects with the various “aunts” on Facebook where they share “their” social problems and receive advice on various Facebook pages.

Diasporans also seem to be extremely fond of the language-nostalgia perhaps. Although most of their conversations and writings often carry antiquated phrases or colloquialisms like “Zviri kufire” that have long fallen out of use here.

Although a good number of websites have a lot of high-quality material especially those offering an introduction to Shona lessons for English speakers, a lot of these sites are often incomplete and patchy in terms of content.

Some only show the default Web server pages.A lot of these sites often ignore the usual guidelines to use Union Shona ( often called Standard Shona) so as to appeal to most Shona speakers.

Sometimes these writings are more difficult to understand than the English ones. Don’t believe me? Try reading this Shona version of the Watchtower magazine. I struggled with their translation and often had to compare it with the English version in order to ascertain the meanings of certain words which kind of defeats the purpose of the translation.

Google Translate offers Zulu translations that allow you to translate any page on the internet from a host of other languages on the internet. It’s not perfect, but it is still empowering. For example, you can translate a Chinese page into Zulu if that is your thing/need which might be the only way for you to understand those ridiculous instructions that are put on ICT equipment.

My router’s box has an instruction that tells me that “[to] put cable to router switch in” whatever that means in Chinese it means absolutely nothing in English and often Google does better translations than the generic software that the manufacturers use.

Shona does not enjoy such privileges, even though there are about 4 million more Shona speakers than there are Zulu speakers. The Google Shona page is nothing but a cosmetic joke with no real underlying functionality as best as I can tell except to tell you about mashizha akachengetwa ( a horrible translation of cached pages) and have Shona named buttons.

Apparently Blogs are called twunyaya tudiki diki (little/small stories). Now, that is just ridiculous Google can surely do better than this. The moment you switch to Google Shona a lot of the function links like Google Plus and Google News links immediately disappear.

If you add the fact that not many pages are in Shona you are confronted with the sad reality that Shona is just marginalized on the internet. Perhaps it’s because of the current economic crisis so we don’t bring much business to online companies. Or maybe it’s because we have a low internet penetration rate, I don’t know.

A Google Shona translation functionality would bring a quick workaround to the fact that not many pages on the web are in Shona, but I cannot say I really blame Google for not implementing the functionality.

Having spent the past three weeks writing Shona notes for my students I can tell you typing Shona into a computer is not fun. First there are no Shona word dictionaries to use with your Word Processor so everything you type has a red line beneath it signifying spelling mistakes. You have to manually proof read and check each and every spelling.

Then there are those who we have tasked with the safe keep of our Language. ZIMSEC and Universities have obstinately resisted the adoption of new words into the language and keep insisting on coining new words instead.

For example, how many people say “nharembozha” when referring to a phone? The only people who I have heard saying this are the presenters and news readers at ZBC. All the people I know call it a “foni” because that is what it is. How many people call a computer “potonjere”? 

The reason why English is so popular is because it is a dynamic language. Five years ago the word unfriend did not exist now it does because of Facebook. They saw the need for the word and now it exists and is even in the dictionaries and so does the word selfie.

A good language evolves to match the needs of the people. Shona remains in a strait jacket and the younger generation is not impressed by the fact that the Shona they learn in the classroom is not the same language they speak at home. It is like Latin and French.

There is no way in traditional Shona to express today’s problems so we have to do what the English do. Borrow the necessary words and change their spelling and sound to match the rest of our language. We need words like radiation, photosynthesis, Blog, Web-server, save, broadband, VSAT,App etc in order to fully express ourselves in the modern world.

Those acquainted with the etymology of most words know the secret of the success of the English Language.There are over a million words and counting in the English Language. Looking at the etymology of most words tells you how this works.

Over the centuries English has absorbed words from languages like Latin(village), Greek (xenophobia), Italian, Indian, French, German (English is a Germanic Language), Japanese, Afrikaans, Swahili, Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Zulu, Korean etc.

Wherever they go the English are always borrowing and adapting words. There are those who are under the misguided notion that borrowing English words is not just unpatriotic but somehow shows that one is not proud of the heritage. That is just a sad and narrow mindset.

To fight this perhaps, they have penalized those who adopt and use new words in their essays to the extent that when you want to write an essay the setting and narrative options are severely restricted or you end up compelled to use these ridiculous vocabulary lists they keep cooking up.

One would have a very hard time describing an urban event, for example, where modern technology is likely to be encountered. Say it’s a fight that took place in the CBD you may get by using words like dhorobha, but how are you going to relate the fact that the incident was streamed live, tweeted about, retweeted about, posted on Facebook and shared on various Blogs? How do you say it was uploaded onto YouTube?

At this rate, the Shona language will be joining the Latin language, Dodo, and the Dinosaurs. The penultimate Apartheid leader P.W Botha said “Adapt or die” before ushering in reforms to change the course of South Africa towards majority rule. Someone ought to do the same for the Shona Language: adapt it to be more useful today or else it will die. Latin was a greater Language than Shona in terms of popularity and it still died.

Image Credit: TextGiraffe 


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42 thoughts on “The Shona Language: Is it marginalised or just dying?

  1. Am sorry –
    -what was the point of your article –
    -what was the point of noting how many more people speak shona
    -why select that 1 particular language you think is being hurt and not just point out Zimbabwean Languages

    You know what – this is that rubbish that makes us not like shona. You already have the WHOLE flipping country thinking that we ALL MUST SPEAK “YOUR” language as in its the language for Zimbabwe.
    You are angering us Man – between your click baiting, you over opinionated pieces and now this – WHAT are you trying to do

    NXAA!!!!!!!!

    1. This is just ridiculous! Why would anyone force you to speak MY LANGUAGE! In case it’s not clear to you: at no point does the article say you should speak Shona even if you want to that would be wrong and I am sure even criminal.
      I think your anger is misdirected, so your language, as I gather is being marginalised too, so speak against that! Not the fact that I think Shona is being marginalised because it is! That will not change the fact that your language should be promoted too.
      It is unconstitutional for someone to discriminate against your language and force you to use it. If its a school forcing you to write a Shona exam when its not your thing that is against the law! No one should be forced to do that, ever. So I am angry for you too if that’s the case.

      1. You know what i mean Garikai – Shona already has a high enough status in Zimbabwe – and you know we ARE FORCED TO SPEAK IT – if you deny that then YOU ARE A LIAR, or maybe you just speak shona so much you dont realise it – I am actively Discriminated against for not Being or speaking shona. And yes you may be right your article is touching Raw nerves mainly because it seems to be aligned with the things we forced to Speak

      2. You say:

        “Most, well, I mean all, important business meetings I have attended seem to be conducted in English with the Shona Language reserved for when the meetings break down and people start shouting at each other. If and when the meetings break down, people start shouting obscenities at one another.”

        You seem to be implying that everyone should speak Shona in those business meetings. The reason why there are 16 languages recognised in the Constitution is because, yes Shona (and it’s dialiects) might be spoken by the majority but not everyone speaks it as a first language and certainly not everyone understands it

  2. hahahahahahahahaha

    Ok i will be serious for a minute, so what you are saying is that the language is so well adapted that more people are using it to communicate than any other language. Well put to show the strength of the language then why ask if it will die?? If it the most spoken and it is dying then it means it plays little relevance in everyday life of the people using it. Suffice to say that the majority of people have been force fed to speak it, that means in homes and everywhere else were they do not need to use shona then poof its gone. My other question is to you author, how well adapted do you think the shona language is to be used everyday on legal documents, medical documents?? let alone be used in academics or coding?? that will define relevance to all who speak it, other than oral communications. When english is a language that is a bridge between people of different dialects.

  3. Thumbs up for this article. Whether you agree with the writer’s assertions or not, the point of the article is that even though Shona is the Bantu language that is widely spoken, yet its speakers or local educational bodies are not doing enough to preserve it in the digital era. Responding to the writer, i think this has to do with the fact that Shona, unlike English or Swahili, does not have a body responsible for maintaining and upholding its standards. If we had a body for example it would have been easy to oversee not only upholding the language, but even publications generated locally or internationally.

    1. Did it ever occur to you that even the so called Shona words that we have used growing up like bhurukwa, rokwe, Kereke, tafura, dhuku and many others are derived from Dutch. I guess the influence of chilapalapa. So to claim that Shona has not been dynamic is not factually correct. Shona also borrows many English words .

  4. makoma maka woma. nda farira nyaya yenyu. manyora chokwadi. I hope varipo vari responsible vacha tora nyaya iyi voyi shandisa.

  5. Tisu vanhu vacho vanoita kuti mutauro wedu uve wakakosha. Tarirai maTswana nerurimi rwavo rwavarikuchengetedza. Nyangwe iri nzvimbo ipi, kana gungano ripi raitika munyika mavo, vanotaura chirudzi chavo vasingatye kana kunyara.

    1. What i mean is that there are bodies that just regularize Shona unnecessarily. They cast the language into stone and thereby etch it into stone age. They should learn from the article and correct it. We cant do much as long as schools are teaching it wrong.

      For instance. What makes Shona hard to read is the way we even write it. Look at anonymous’ comment and my earlier comment. Written Shona is not modularised. What makes English easier to read and use is becoz it is written modularily. Instead of vakapusa, why not write vaka pusa, so that translators like Google can easily work with it. Imagine if we would write English this way “theyaredumb” itwouldbe certainly veryhard toread.
      Furthurmore “vaka pusa” can be easily translated to “they are dumb”. The same module “vaka” can be used for “they” in the phrase “they took” to wit “vaka tora” without necessarily making many different words Eg: vakapusa and vakatora, then vakayenda, vakasara, vakatyora, vakasiya…

      My point is the responsible bodies who set Shona education, spellings and grammar should begin to take these sentiments into consideration. I completely understand what the author was trying to say. Our language is great, but it is not modern. We need to mordenise and even write it the same way we speak it everyday. I am sure the same goes for other Bantu languages too like Ndebele etc. I didn’t learn Ndebele so I won’t say much but I think u get the idea.

      I am a programmer and I found it difficult to automatically translate Shona to English or vice versa because of this. It’s better if the problem is fixed from school up.

      Did u know that Shona is very neat, short and readable if written modurarily.

      Consider this: ne rurimi rwavo rwavari ku chengetedza.
      Instead of: nerurimi rwavo rwavarikuchengetedza.

      We need to correct what we teach about how words are formulated in Shona, coz what we’re taught at school is not how we do it everyday. So who ever is responsible should take things from this page and add more to it so that it is taught correctly.

      These languages are great guys and we should keep them, but it’s not thru speaking that we keep them, it’s thru other means of communication as well.

  6. Correct: I thought shona is a grouped language of many dialects. If so then it cant be the most spoken…..because The Nguni language beng a grouped language would compise Xhosa,Zulu,siswati,sindebele (SA) and sindebele (Zim).
    Lets compare apples with apples : How many people speak Karanga vis a vis Zezuru or karanga vis a vis Zulu . Am sure you get my point.

  7. Excellent article.

    Some of us may be interested to know that there is a Shona spellchecker for LibreOffice/OpenOffice which can be found at the extensions website for LibreOffice at the following address: http://extensions.libreoffice.org/extension-center?b_start:int=40&getCompatibility=any&getCategories=Dictionary

    Just browse among the dictionaries listed to find the one for Shona.

    At least not many Shona words will be flagged red as misspelt in the wordprocessor using current Shona orthography. The same spellchecker can be used in Thunderbird e-mail programme for spellchecking. If one is not satisfied with how it works one can always improve on it since it is open source and the word list is available in text format. Perhaps somebody can port it to MS Word format?

    (A German once told me that German orthography is almost the same as in Shona, with prefixes and suffixes galore – that is how we end up with a word like vakaendawo with two prefixes and a suffix on the main word “enda”. Just look at how long German written words are. Yet translating German to English (or any other language) is done almost routinely. There are plenty of languages written the same as Bantu languages (of which Shona is one) which are routinely translated. So the problem is not how Shona (or any other Bantu language) is written, but whether there are people willing and interested in doing the work. All the other languages which have got machine translators and other writing aids is because their users have put work into them!)

    The current Shona language dictionary (Duramazwi Guru ReChiShona) has tried to add new current words, but of course it is hadcopy and will take ages to update. But it shows that the need to use “modern” words is recognised and hopefully more will keep being added.

    1. My sentiments are not that it cannot be done, it can be done. However, making it easier to read, write and translate can make it adaptable in the modern society. Because of modurality and adaptability you can say “u can’t” instead of “you cannot” making English attractive when writing on my mobile phone keyboard. I would choose to use English to express myself with that phrase instead of Shona “hawukwanise”. Necessarily becoz I can’t shorten, write nor read it as fast. That’s what will kill it.

  8. I’ve got a small site with a list of Shona Jokes/Nyambo (www.tafadzwa.com). Some of the jokes were taken from old the ZvaJokes yahoo group and newer ones from whatsapp and facebook.

    There is a submit page (www.tafadzwa.com/submit)

  9. Very shallow and single-minded

    Shona? Marginalised and Dying?

    According to our constitution our languages are Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa.

    What languages are
    – taught at school?
    – spoken on national, electronic media( TV, Radio)?
    – used in written in media(online and print)?

    Now you tell us Shona is marginalised.

    1. While I surely respect every language this is a fact: not all languages are the same and I am not referring to some perceived superiority here that would not just be moronic but difficult to prove. I am talking about potential audience. In Zimbabwe 9 times out of 10 you will be readily understood if you speak in English no matter where you are, with Shona its 7/10 with Ndebele 2 times out of 10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Zimbabwe. http://www.ethnologue.com/language/nde which explains why the three are most used in media. It would be more useful however to use the most appropriate language depending on the audience that you want to reach e.g. Why the heck would you not use Tonga first before trying any other language in Binga given the populace of the area? It would be crazy to use Shona at a rally in such a place ceteris paribus.

      My point is we need more content in the vernecular and be aware of how the vernecular language is falling out of use. I clearly stated in the article why I chose Shona. To use an analogy: As an expert in Accounting I cannot write an expert opinion article in a medical Journal because I do not know the first thing about the subject. I cannot speak on these languages because I am not an expert on them. I have never googled for Tonga language articles or Ndebele articles because I would not know how to read them or comment on them the way I did on Shona.

      Finally have ever noticed what some people say whenever someone complains that the Zim economy is in the doldrums and the infrastructure (roads etc) is rotting. People like to point out that there are countries like Mozambique and Somalia where things are tougher and the potholes bigger. Instead of looking for crappier economies why not look up?

      Morale: Instead of jumping to point out how other languages are being marginalised and falling out of use. Why not say nice article: A lot of languages are marginalized too for example Tonga, Ndebele ( the whole 16) that would be more positive thinking.

      1. “Morale: Instead of jumping to point out how other languages are being marginalised and falling out of use. Why not say nice article: A lot of languages are marginalized too for example Tonga, Ndebele ( the whole 16) that would be more positive thinking.”

        Because it isnt a nice article at all.

        It is totally ignorant of reality and perpetuates the stereotypical “Shona” mindset that ignores the significance of other languages and cultures(I am Shona by the way).

        It is you singled out and highlighted Shona, which doesnt even fit into the best example of a marginalised language.

        Trivial to you but there is REAL marginalisation and risk of death of some Zimbabwean languages that is stuff of debate amongst communities, academia and native speakers of those languages… Shona is far from marginalised.

    2. Tinm@n – I know this is a loaded subject, but there’s nothing that is controversial in the article. The author clearly defined the parameters of ‘marginalisation’ (lack of translations, general disuse by speakers language, etc).

      I noticed that you are also not attacking the article, or any of the points it raised (loaded subject, as I said). However, you could have replaced Shona with any of the other languages you listed, and the author’s point would still stand: indigenous languages are being pushed out by English in online spaces & conversations. It is not a zero-sum game – there is room for all indigenous languages – unless you are happier with the status quo where English will gradually suffocate local languages.

      tldr: Just because there are languages that are more marginalized than Shona does not mean Shona is not marginalized, or that we should not discuss the marginalization of Shona. It’s akin to saying “don’t ask for a raise, there are people earning less than you”. Discussing Shona does not preclude discussion of other languages, so I don’t see what the problem is.

  10. Thats a risky article Garikai.. Very risky. Wish you could say the same about Ndebele, Kalanga, Tonga etc.

    1. I don’t see how, I am sure there are a lot of Ndebeles, Kalangas and Tongas lobbying for their languages. One of my friends is Tonga. We used to talk and rail against the fact that he was forced to learn and write Ndebele when that was not his native tongue although given the job he later got he was glad of that he knew Ndebele, Shona and Tonga we still rallied against the injustice. Now his brother is seating for the Tonga exam. So these protests and educational articles work my friend we have to begin somewhere and you can clearly see I am not dissing any language. That would be tribalism and goes against every fiber of my being. My many Ndebele relatives would slap the silliness out of me anywhere before they let me besmirch their/our language. In fact, I am kind of jealous of the fact they can speak Ndebele and I can’t!

    1. A popular belief that is not true at all. Kind of reminds me of people before the pre-Renaissance days. They all believed the world was as flat as a plate and the sun revolved around it. That never changed the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, still does, and it is a sphere (well sort of). People believe a lot of things, it does not make them true your Majesty 😉

      1. You are wrong bro, Shona is spoken by aroung 8.3 million people and Zulu around 10 million. THis is freely available information, check on wikipedia. Go to the UZ, languages section and see their numbers. If you include all Shona and Zulu dialects in the counts, Zulu still leads because Southern Ndebele, Northen Ndebele and Swazi are all considered Zulu dialects. Improve on your research boy and grow up

        1. @TheKing, you could both be right: there might be more “Zulu speakers” overall- but how many speak of those speak Zulu as a first language? There is an important distinction in the article: Many people do not know this but Shona is the most spoken L1 Bantu Language; that is as a first language..

          Rephrased: Among Bantu languages, Shona has the largest number of people who use it as a first language.

  11. you forgot to credit Mugabe and his marginalizing mode of government for making shona the number language in Zimbabwe. Its sad that people have been forced to learn and adopt a foreign language and abondone their own in order to survive. Basic government services are offered in shona….go to any government office in the heartland of Matabelend and you will find it manned by a shona speaking individual who cannot speak a single word of the native language.

    People are forced to adapt or suffer and here you are heaping praises and wishing this marginalization and genocide could further be extended, shame on you

  12. Found the article a great read, and am actually surprised at some of the negative reactions in the comments.

    What is the article doing on Techzim? C’mon, its talking about Shona, a Zimbabwean language, and its online presence. Why shouldnt it be on Techzim?
    Why is the article not talking about Ndebele? Like the author explained in the article, he cant talk about something he hardly knows anything about. Better let those well versed and interested in Ndebele (or any other language highlighted in the comments) talk about it. And he cant very well talk about ALL languages you might deem marginalised. Seriously?

  13. Fellow citizens of the Earth; read and understand. This argument has been discussed at NUST by Prof. Madlela when he argued on a platform at Byo City Hall alluding to the fact that notwithstanding the limitations of language; even a lecture in engineering could be delivered in Ndebele for instance. There is no need to bombard each other on tribal lines over this. It is what it is!! What ZIMSEC and the Dept of languages at UZ with regards to refusal of adapting/borrowing other languages into local languages is detrimental at least as far the article above shows. People do not make arguments that are not helpful to the world order by exposing your opinionated tribal misgivings over someone’s observations. How do you help the perceived obliteration of this language? How do you improve the online dictionaries? How do you contribute to a greater realisation of the usage of our local languages in order to not have a defunct language in the near future. How do you preserve perceived originality of the said language? How do you promote dialects that make up varied language groups? These are the questions and concerns I would wish to read not the emotive blubbering over which language is superior etc. EVERY language is SUPERIOR because it counts!! Some need to grow up and be real when it comes to these issues seeing we all came from somewhere into the lands we now call ours!!

  14. mr Author we shonas are arrogant, we dont want to learn other languages like Tonga, Ndebele. but we wanna do business in shona. You know a lot of techno things because you are interested about it, get interested about Ndebele and you will know it.

    1. You might be right, but this is entirely unrelated to any of the points raised by this article.

      What is wrong with wanting to do business in Shona? How does this preclude doing business in any of the other local languages? Or do you prefer the status quo where all business is done in a non-indigenous language?

  15. 12 million people 16 languages. How do we move as one? Every meeting has got to be at least double the time because there has to be an interpreter/s, all literature has to be type set 17 times which requires labor. One cannot cross their own country without feeling lost because he cannot be understood as much as he cannot understand his fellow countrymen. Some suggest we learn other languages but then, when do we start being productive as we dedicate more time to learn speaking 3 to 16 languages while other nations move forward. How does a small tribe makes sure they have all essential services personnel trained to provide services in their communities when colleges are in Harare and Bulawayo. I think we are primitive to believe there is something sacred to preserve in a language beyond making sure we can all communicate effectively for our survival. We need one language to be one people. The choice is ours to either be a fragmented 12million speakers or a single knowledge pool that’s 12million brains strong with a single efficient knowledge base who’s transmission to all parts is aided by a uniform well defined language. Natural selection can help us chose that language if we let it and only then will we understand what it is to be a single nation. For know lets continue wasting resources promoting our little languages

  16. The writer is very correct. This is not about tribes or other languages. This is about shona being marginalised in the sphere of technology. Its not about this tribe or that tribe or that other language. The biggest problem of us Zimbabweans is we are too emotional and we don’t pay attention to detail. Who is margnalising the language its ourselves the shona speakers and the government. This also aplies to other languages thank you.

  17. kkk I saw a text on whataspp that said:

    If you want someone to immediately stop whatever they are doing with a stern warning, in English you say “hey you! stop that!” and in shona “i-iwee!”

    😀

  18. Finally found a great article that confirms my belief that Shona is too static and will soon die. I think very few people would feel comfortable using it in technical communication, all because the guys in academia overseeing the language, refuse to incorporate new words that are used in modern everyday Shona. My question would be why they wont adopt new words, coining a new word instead of adapting a word already in use. Shuwa ungati Potonjere uchitadza kuti Kombiyuta, its a joke

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