Traversing the Sociolinguistic: The Status of Languages Spoken in Southern and Southeast Zimbabwe.

AuthorMadlome, Steyn Khesani
PositionZimbabwe: The Royal Residence - Report


Zimbabwe is a multilingual country which has indigenous languages such as Barwe, Chewa, Khoisan (Tshwao), TjiKalanga, Nambya, Ndebele, Shona, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda, Xitsonga (which is commonly mistakenly referred to as Xichangana/shangani), Xhosa and English. Sign language and Chindau are also considered as official languages as enshrined in the current Constitution of Zimbabwe. There are other languages such as Hwesa, Sena, Chikunda spoken along the Zimbabwean eastern border with Mozambique but they are not covered in the new constitution. Another endangered variety is Pfumbi a sub-language of Shona/ Venda which is predominantly spoken in Beit Bridge district and also in Maranda area in Mwenezi district.

A language like English, though being a language of the minority in Zimbabwe, has been and still being used for most functions at the expense of indigenous ones. Cooper (1996: 166) supports this view by saying: "Indeed the spread of imperial languages, particularly English, as languages of administration, and international trade, is one of the most striking legacies of the modern colonial era."

The aim of this work is to highlight and discuss the social status of Zimbabwean languages which are spoken in the eastern and south eastern peripheries of Zimbabwe. It is going to unravel the major causes of the status accorded these languages whether by design or otherwise. The aim is to discuss the official and informal functions of these languages in the socio-linguistic space, and analyse the picture on ground in as far as the implementation of the clause on languages enshrined in the Zimbabwean constitution is concerned.

An Overview of Language Matters

Winford (2003) in his chapter entitled "ideology of language and socially realistic linguistics", talks about ideology and historicity of a language. He argues that history of a language is very vital in the development and legitimacy of any given language. He goes on to say languages of African Diaspora have either a distorted history which was only used for defamatory purposes or to some extent nothing has been said about them.

Winford goes on to discuss about ideology and autonomy of languages. He argues that African American Venaculars (AAVE) and other minority vernaculars are not autonomous due to the problem of naming where they are given derogatory terms such as "Ebonics". This is supported by Smitherman (1986) who argues that a name has more to it other than just being a mere word. He says that a name could be a historical symbol which also has values and consequences in real life situation. In line with ideology and prestige Sidnell indicates that the ideologies of a language may be used to exert power and privilege over other languages. Winford basing on this assumption, asserts that African American speech community, would feel as if standard English is "prestigious" while is stigmatized.

In terms of ideology and social control, Milroy and Milroy (1985) also argue that the standard language ideology reinforces inequality in terms of power and privilege among the American communities. In other words this "standard language ideology" favours the promotion of the dominant group at the expense of groups which are less powerful.

Milroy and Milroy argue that to the groups which have power to control can maintain the status quo by misinforming and misrepresenting the under privileged groups and also by denying them influential positions and privilege. They go on to say that the tools such as mass media and institutionalised prejudices against African language and culture were used as control measures to hinder the development of the less privileged groups. On the other hand Ferraro (2008) also mentions that languages which have a large number of speakers and political power as well are not endangered since they enjoy the privileges.

Peil (1977) argues that people may discriminate others according to origin, whereby some think they are the rightful occupants of a certain place or country and hence feel that they are more superior to others who may have migrated from some other places. These immigrants are often treated as strangers.

Language Policy in Zimbabwe

A language policy is a crucial instrument in the development and elevation of languages, especially those which have low status. A language policy may also be manipulated or designed to maintain the status quo. Zimbabwe has no clear language policy which stands on its own. Chimhundu (1997:129) supports this when he says: "In Zimbabwe, as in many other African countries, there is no explicit or written language policy".

Since independence there was no language policy in Zimbabwe. Reference was only made to the education act of 1987 (Royneland 1997:133). This language act in education was used in various sectors as a guideline on how languages could be used. This act did not promote all indigenous languages of Zimbabwe but it only favoured English, Ndebele and Shona. Other languages were labelled as 'minority languages' and were later on referred to as marginalised languages. Currently the constitution of Zimbabwe (2013:17) has declared that 16 languages are recognised as official languages which should be developed and promoted equally. This is the only hope of all languages which formally fell into the 'minority' category. However, the Constitution (2013:17) section 6(2) further states that "An act of parliament may prescribe other languages as officially recognised languages and may prescribe languages of record". This means the parliament has power to influence the policy which may support or disadvantage other languages.

The ideology also plays a role in influencing the language policy of any given country. This is evident in a country like Zimbabwe where nationalism has caused some remarkable discrepancy in the statuses of its languages. Soon after independence Zimbabwe adopted a policy which in the views of politicians fostered unity among citizens, by choosing languages such as Shona, Ndebele and English as national and official languages at the expense of other indigenous languages which includes Xitsonga, Cindau, Venda, Tonga, Kalanga, Nambya, Sotho, Tswana, Tshwao, Sena, and Sign language.

Findings and Discussions

Zimbabwean history is marred with inconsistencies in issues pertaining to the languages spoken by minorities who occupy peripheral areas of Zimbabwe. Most of the history textbooks do not capture comprehensive issues about these groups in the marginal areas. There is a tendency of portraying Zimbabwe as country which does not have a diverse socio-cultural background. The history also does not cover a wide range of issues which point to a multicultural and multilingual society.

Even naming itself has a bearing on how people would view the status of a language. Xitsonga is one such language which is known by a wrong name, because of inconsistencies in history. The name given to this language in Zimbabwe is Shangani or Xichangana and it is derived from the name of Soshangane who was one of Shaka's generals who broke away from the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s during Mfecane. This Soshangane found the Tsonga people, already established in the present day Mozambique, and he never spoke Xitsonga himself. Mathebula (2013) supports this view when he argues that the Tsonga people had already established themselves along the east coast by the 13th century, before Soshangane was born.

This same language is known as Xitsonga in South Africa and Mozambique. It is only in Zimbabwe where political boundaries are used to separate Xitsonga so as to create an impression that Xitsonga and Xichangana/Shangani are two different languages. Mathebula (2013: 9) points to the exact identity of the Tsonga regardless of boundaries when he says: "The name of the...

To continue reading

Request your trial