Still trying to figure out why they just won’t speak Shona? Well, picture this.

They have no idea how to convey their thoughts in Shona

I imagine the times I have tried to use Shona in phrasing a thought or feeling and just failed outright. Outside the home environment, I have used English to learn almost everything I know. As a result, I find it easier to describe my feelings in English. The language has a richer collection of terms, allowing more freedom in expressing ideas. Well, that is what it would seem. But, what if over time Shona speakers have ‘impoverished’ their language as it has become dominated by the English language?

Consider this. You are driving, then unexpectedly hit a pothole while glancing at the flock of sheep grazing by the roadside. The children in the back seat immediately shriek with laughter. How would you later explain the flat tyre to a friend? Would you use the following words: ‘Chiturivadzimu’ for pothole; ‘gweshekweshe’ for flock, and ‘shwararadza’ for shriek?  And, if you had to describe the color of your oxblood shoes would you use the word ‘shavapara’? Have you ever heard the word ‘sokorodzi’ used in reference to a goitre?

traditional healer advert with errors in grammar

people tend to transfer the pronunciation rules, grammar and accents of their first language to the language being learnt.

Advocates of English declare that the language is easy to learn. Well, Shona should be easier because, for a start, every syllable ends with a vowel.  If the Shona have no idea how to convey their thoughts in their mother tongue, how does that work out for the rest? Mutanga’s advert (see picture insert) left me questioning whether indeed English is easy to learn. There are times words just do not readily translate to the next language. Perhaps simply because the object is foreign. In such a case, your best bet would be to paraphrase and make up a narrative with examples.

They see the world differently

Some studies on the science of the mind suggest that language influences how we see the world.  That it shapes our thoughts and consequently our understanding of experiences in terms of aspects such as time and gender. A language called Kuuk Thaayorre spoken in Australia uses compass lines for orientation, rather than ‘to my left’ or ‘to my right’. The studies have shown that speakers who orient themselves along compass lines have great navigational skills as opposed to those who orient relative to themselves. The latter being highly egocentric.

bedside table with lamp and clock

In the Shona language, the flow of time is well articulated.

In Shona, one would know that ‘madokero’ is west and ‘mabvazuva’ is east. But how often does one use ‘chamhembe’ (south) or ‘maodzanyemba’ (north) in everyday speech? The flow of time is however well articulated, as even the words speak for themselves. ‘Madokero’ means ‘where the sun sets’ and ‘mabvazuva’ is ‘where the sun rises’. Around midday, ‘zuva rinenge rorova nhongonya’ meaning ‘the sun is directly above us’. To partition the visible colour spectrum, I find Shona limiting as it has just the basic colour terms. The common ones being ‘nhema’ (black), ‘chena’ (white), ‘pfumbu’ (grey) and tsvuku (red). This is reflected in traditional art which uses neutral tones. In the Yele language, colour is described in terms of objects in the surrounding environment. For instance, to describe something black the word for ‘night’ is used.

Chinese toy instructions with grammar errors

There are times words just do not readily translate to the next language.

Does language prevent or limit one from thinking about what they want to think about? Is it not our environment that shapes our thoughts and consequently our language? It would not be way off, however, to imagine that what become habits of speech could influence the way we think.

 They can’t tell ‘him’ apart from ‘her’

Shona disregards the difference between male and female so that words for humans are grouped in the same classes. ‘He’ is referred to as ‘iye’, so is ‘she’. ‘They’ is ‘ivo’, but also is ‘her’ or ‘him’. ‘Ivo baba’. If we turn the tables, it is no surprise that a number of Shona speakers find this puzzling, presenting the ‘she, he, her and him’ common errors in English. Consider, however, the ambiguity in the dual usage of the word ‘man’ in the English language. It refers to males only on one hand, and to humankind (or is it ‘mankind’) on the other.

The many shades of Shona keep greying all the words

What is the difference between dialect and language? The obvious differentiators are the ability of speakers to understand each other, and unity of vocabulary. With a wide variety of dialects in the Shona language, non-native speakers would be spoiled by choice. For native speakers though, this would be of no relevance. That is because only a few are familiar with how a standardised language has evolved over time, from sub-dialects within dialects.

The earliest efforts to unify the Shona dialects identified 6 main groups which were further divided into sub-dialects. While it was admitted that the Kalanga definitely belonged to the Shona, the dialect was not included in the unification of dialects as its features were too peculiar. This unification, which was meant to achieve a standard Shona language seems to have resulted in the blurring of some varieties. An occurrence I believe to be rather unfortunate.

main group sub-dialects
Korekore Tavara, Shangwe, Korekore, Gova, Budya
Zezuru Shawasha, Harava, Gova, Nohwe, Hera, Njanja, Mbire, Nobvu, Vakwachikwakwa, Vakwazvimba, Tsunga
Karanga Duma, Jena, Mari, Govera, Ngova/ Gova, Nyubi
Manyika Hungwe, Manyika, Teve
Ndau Ndau, Tonga, Garwe, Danda, Shanga
Kalanga Nyai, Nambya, Rozvi, Kalanga, Talahundra, Lilima / Humba, Peri

(adapted from the 1931 ‘Report on the Unification of the Shona Dialects’ by Doke)

dancing boy and girl

Shona disregards the difference between male and female so that words for humans are grouped in the same classes.

Some interesting facts on the unification of Shona dialects

In the process of standardisation, a 32-letter alphabet was recommended. This was made up of the Roman alphabet (less ‘l’ and ‘q’) and an additional 8 symbols. The recommendation was based on a desire to avoid any symbol having more than one sound. All the additional symbols were later dropped.

‘Zezuru’ was chosen as the basis of unification of the dialects because: it included all phonetic differences; pronunciation within it was more or less uniform, and it was spoken in the central geographical area of the Shona speaking territory.

The whistling is strenuous

While one would assume that Shona is fairly easy to learn given that it is written in the manner it is pronounced, this isn’t the case. When learning a new language, people tend to transfer the pronunciation rules, grammar and accents of their first language to the language being learnt. The whistling sounds of the Shona language have proven to be problematic to non-native speakers. These include ‘sv’, ‘tsv’, ‘zv’, ‘dzv’and ‘nzv’. I vividly remember how, as a child, I had to endure countless Mass celebrations led by white priests. Fortunately, the various gestures and postures performed during the Mass always kept me engaged.

So even without saying a word, you have spoken, albeit in a different language. Language is more than words, dialects and accents. It is how we influence the world and how the world influences us. A new language presents a different world view, so embrace whatever chance you get to learn one.


The views expressed in this article are entirely my own and given in no professional or expert capacity. For details on Shona dialects, reference was made to the ‘1931 ‘Report on the Unification of the Shona Dialects’ by Doke: A photographic reprint with an introduction by Herbert Chimhundu, 2005)

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