Zimbabwean English: Recognising How English has adapted to the Zimbabwean Landscape

Just last week, the topic that flooded many Zimbabwean twitter timelines was the issue of rebranding Zimbabwean to make it an attractive tourist and international investment destination. Among other things discussed was the need for Zimbabweans to be proud of their culture and heritage as well as current state they find themselves in. In that respect, we also have to be proud of our languages both indigenous and adopted ones.

Many people were dismayed by how dismally pupils performed at last year’s ordinary level sitting. Among other subjects failed, Shona, Ndebele and English are surprising guests to the list. It is pretty obvious that these three languages are spoken widely in Zimbabwe with English slowly eclipsing the other two indigenous. Therefore the fact that students can fail languages spoken everyday  still baffles many and many theories have been put forward to explain this but I think the explanation to that is quite simple., Our examining bodies have failed to realise that language is not static but dynamic and constantly change. The original Germanic English of 5thcentury is different to the English spoken in the Shakespearean times and the English that has changed to include words like facebooking, tweeting and bootylicious and googling that we speak today.

On Tuesday 5 March 2013 two talented broadcasters who present a breakfast show on one of the local radio stations discussed how Zimbabweans liked to use ‘none-existent’ English words  such as ‘Ignant’ and ‘irregardless’  which they termed as wrong English. Whose English, I asked in an ensuing Twitter exchange. American English? They are very wrong. Zimbabwean English? Very right. They refused to accept the existence of the existence of Zimbabwean English despite evidence on the contrary splattered just a Google search away.

English and Adaptability

Spoken originally by North Germanic tribes who migrated to the west in 5th Century, English as we know it today has gone numerous changes including the Scandinavian invasions of 8th and 9th centuries as well as the Normans inflection of the 11th Century. According to Gail Harding, a Harare based linguist specializing in speech training for slower kids,  English like any language has changed from time to time as a result of political pressure, invasion and immigrating. It has also taken different forms in dialect as people grouped themselves into communities and for that reason that why there is something called Geordie English spoken mainly in Essex and the great differences between the English Spoken in Central London and that spoken in more rural places of Britain. When Speakers come into contact with each other based on gender, ethnicity, age, sex etc., new words and expressions as well as pronunciations are birthed.

Speakers will reflect new places and situations and subjects, situations in their languages whether or not they encounter foreigners or not hence in Australia the most homogenous of all English speaking nations, they have  their own type of English most notably characterised by none jaw movement in the pronunciation of words like ‘fear’ and ‘sheer’.

Zimbabwean English: A lesser known and accepted variety of English

According to Richard Nordquist, Zimbabwean English is a descendant of Rhodesian English spoken by the settler white community and influenced by words from local Bantu languages and Afrikaans. It however changed at Independence when blacks and whites freely interacted and the ensuing was a productive and ever changing variety influenced by mainly Shona and Ndebele as well as popular culture particularly American on the youths and to a lesser extent, Jamaican English on youths from poorer parts of the country.

Susan Maritz Fitz notes that in English Speakers who have a first language and take English as their second language, English take the form of their first language accents bringing such phenomenon known as French, Nigerian, Zulu and Indian Accents. In Zimbabwe the incorporation of local Bantu languages into English results in purer but open vowels where words like ‘clip’ are pronounced as ‘cleep’  and ‘hop’ sounds like ‘hope’.

As noted on the radio discussion, there have been varieties of English words spoken in Zimbabwe that are non existent in the mainstream English such as ‘Ignant, Pronounciation, and irregardless among others. Words such as Baccossi, Esap, Zesa, mainly originated as names or abbreviations of something and are used daily with totally new meanings. For example ZESA is an abbreviation of the local power company but now it is widely used to refer to electricity itself. Brand names of popular products have been changed to mean the products themselves words like Colgate have become known as reference to toothpaste while Cobra widely refers to floor polish.

Miguel AB Castro of Jaun University explains this by simply pointing out that languages are simply tools for human communication and speakers find the most economic ways to speak efficiently and effectively. This may explain why ‘tumour’ is pronounced differently and ‘Cactus’ received a different plural among American speakers. This also explains why the word ‘Colonel’ is pronounced as it looks in Zimbabwe.

A lack of its own vibrant pop culture has opened a gap for influence among Zimbabwean English speakers from America, and to a lesser extent Jamaica and South Africa depending on the demographic. Words such as ‘booty’, ‘crib’  and ‘ride’ now have new meanings especially to youths of a more affluent status while Jamaica has provided words such as ‘Chichi-man’ which is widely used by youths from poorer areas to refer to people of a homosexual inclination. Unpalatable words for vagina, and other body parts have also been imported from Jamaica.

It is important to note the existence of Zimbabwean English, influenced by many different aspects. The fact that a group of English speakers are settled in their own part of the world is enough to grant the existence of such a variation. Even Microsoft, the software giant recognises the existence of Zimbabwean English and gives an option for such in its programs.

It is us as Zimbabweans with our larger than life inferiority complexes and trashing anything that identifies us as us that we deny that we deny to acknowledge the form the queen’s language has taken in our motherland. Why not use this form to market ourselves as proud Zimbabweans who speak their own English without batting an eye. Nigerians did it. So can we. Why not use this new form to educate our children? Maybe, then maybe we can start to see greater pass rates that we are looking for.

Do you know any words used in Zimbabwean English that are none existent in Mainstream English? Help us tabulate those by leaving a comment here or tweeting under the Hash tag #ZimEnglish.

The writer used information from these sources:

1)       Susan Fitzmaurice, “L1 Rhodesian English.” The Lesser-Known Varieties of English, ed. by D. Schreier et al. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010

2)       http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/changing-voices/

3)       http://www.teachit.co.uk/armoore/lang/languagechange.htm

Imakando Musho describes himself as a blogger, academician and a philanthropist among other things. When he is not designing lights for shows, he blogs at Giving Life a Meaning.

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