The linguistic situation in Zimbabwe

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 The History of Zimbabwe – Colonial Background

3 Linguistic Situation and Language Policy
3.1 Languages
3.2 Status, Functions and Attitudes
3.3 Language Policy and the 1997 Harare Conference on Language Policies in Africa

4 Zimbabwean English
4.1 The Influence of Shona
4.1.1 Phonological Variation
4.1.2 Lexico-Semantic Variation
4.1.3 Grammar and Syntax
4.2 Sociolects

5 Zimbabwean Literature

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

8 Internet Sources

1 Introduction

“You must know I have undertaken to prophesy that English will be the most respectable language in the world, and the most universally read and spoken in the next century if not before the close of this... Let us, then, encourage and advise every body to study English.”

John Adams, 1780 (Adams 1854: 509-510)

This linguistic prophecy, made by the second president of the United States in 1780, has become reality in a much wider sense than John Adams could ever have envisioned. Colonialism and especially the British Empire have transported the English language to the remotest corners of the world. Today English is “generally acknowledged to be the world’s most important language” (Quirk et al. 1985 : 3). Most of this importance goes back to the imposition of English as official language on numerous people in countries all over the world. Even though colonial times have long since passed, English has retained its status and functions to a large extent in most, if not all, former British colonies.

This paper deals with the linguistic situation in one of these former British colonies, namely Zimbabwe, the former Southern Rhodesia.

At the beginning of our seminar with the title ‘Southern Hemisphere English’ we agreed on a short definition of what we see as linguistic or language situation. The linguistic situation describes the ethnic and / or regional distribution as well as the social and functional distribution and hierarchy of the languages or varieties that are used for communication in a certain, generally administrative territory, according to prevalent ethnic, political, socio-economic and cultural conditions. It is always the result of historical processes and largely depends on the language policy adopted in the territory.

I start the paper with a short look at Zimbabwe’s colonial history. Later on I examine the linguistic situation and the kind of language policy existing in Zimbabwe. In this context I talk about the languages spoken in Zimbabwe, their status and functions and the speakers’ attitudes towards those languages. Furthermore, I give a short summary of the results of the Harare 1997 Intergovernmental Conference on Language Policies in Africa. Finally, I try to give an impression of some of the peculiarities of the variety of English spoken in Zimbabwe. Due to the contact with and the influence of the indigenous language Shona there is some notable lexical, syntactical as well as phonological variation. Other features I deal with are the social varieties of English in Zimbabwe and the role of English in Zimbabwean literature.

In summary, this paper aims at illustrating the linguistic situation in this former British colony by looking at the legal regulations (de jure situation), concerning the status and functions of the languages spoken most widely, as well as the de facto situation and the relation between the two. Apart from that, I also want to give an impression of the kind of English spoken in Zimbabwe and maybe find out whether something like a Zimbabwean variety of English exists.

Unfortunately, the amount of source material available in Berlin is rather limited, even though quite a few extensive studies about the linguistic situation in Zimbabwe exist. The probably most influential work is Emmanuel Ngara’s foundational study Bilingualism, Language Contact and Language Planning (1982). The main source for this paper were Edmund O. Bamiro’s The English Language and the Construction of Cultural and Social Identity in Zimbabwean and Trinbagonian Literatures (2000), which also extensively analyses Ngara’s study (1982), and various pages on the Internet (see bibliography). Furthermore, I used The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 9 (1994) and Mupanduki’s Zimbabwe – An Analysis of the Socio-Economic Geographical Situation and Prospects. (1985).

2 The History of Zimbabwe – Colonial Background

The British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of the British South Africa Company, received a charter for South Africa in 1889. “Its objects were (1) to extend the railway from Kimberley northward to the Zambezi, (2) to encourage immigration and colonisation, (3) to promote trade and commerce, and (4) to secure all mineral rights, in return for guarantees of protection and security of rights to the tribal chiefs.” (

In the 1890s Rhodes, who was not only the owner of the South Africa Company but then also Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, sent the first settlers to the territory which is now Zimbabwe. In 1895 the company’s territory just south of the Zambezi river was formally named Rhodesia. A treaty with the Ndebele kingdom allowed the company to mine gold in that area. This, of course, led to an increasing influx in settlers. By 1892 the number of settlers that had arrived from the south amounted to about 1500. Only one year later the area became home for 12500 settlers (cf. The conflict between the Ndebele and the European immigrants began to grow. In 1898 Rhodesia became a British protectorate, English was declared the official language of the country. By 1911 the European population in Rhodesia had grown to an incredible 23600. From the beginning the settlers demanded representation on the country’s Legislative Council (cf.

When asked by a referendum in 1922 whether to join the Union of South Africa or rather become a self-governing colony, the Whites decided for the latter. The British government had little option but to assume administrative responsibilities. In 1923 Southern Rhodesia was annexed by the United Kingdom and became a self-governing British colony.

During the 1930s several laws were passed which excluded Africans from land-ownership, skilled trades and professions. Consequently, the vast majority of the African population was also excluded from voting by property and educational requirements.

By 1953 the European population of Southern Rhodesia had risen to 157000 (cf. A federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia) and Nyasaland (later Malawi) was formed in 1953. A new constitution for Southern Rhodesia was formulated in 1961 to keep the Whites in power. By the end of 1963 the federation was dissolved again and in 1965 the South Rhodesian government under Prime Minister Ian Smith, a stubborn settler regime, unilaterally declared the colony’s independence. This was not recognised by the British government who demanded voting rights for the black African majority in the country. Africans were removed from areas designated as white. Security legislation voided the few remaining civil rights of the African population (cf.

The following years were characterised by a civil war, guerrilla uprisings, UN sanctions and a cut of ties with Britain. Finally, in 1979 the conflicting parties agreed on a new constitution and transitional arrangements. After free elections the new State of Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. Zimbabwe also is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. (cf.

The first Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has been the country’s only ruler so far and still acts as its president . After serious manipulations of this year’s general elections, which were aimed at keeping Mugabe in power, the country is now facing suspension from the Commonwealth and several UN sanctions.

More than eight decades under British rule, dominated by English-speaking white settlers of British or South African origin, have left a footprint on Zimbabwean culture and society, on all domains of public life. After independence Zimbabwe has nevertheless opted to retain the use of the former colonisers’ language – English.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


The linguistic situation in Zimbabwe
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
HS: Southern Hemisphere English
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
444 KB
Zimbabwe, Southern, Hemisphere, English
Quote paper
Franziska Böttcher (Author), 2002, The linguistic situation in Zimbabwe, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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