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Number of Speakers: 10 million (Gordon 2005)

Key Dialects: Chi-Harare, Kalanga, Karanga, Korekore, Manyika, Ndau, Zezuru

Geographical Center: Zimbabwe, central Mozambique (to the coast), northeastern Botswana and southern Zambia.

Shona is broadly spoken across south central Africa by approximately ten million people and encompasses four nation. It is also spoken in parts of Malawi by upwards of 20,000 speakers. Shona is known by a variety of names: Chi-shona, Chi-vanhu, and Swina, the later of which is considered derogatory.

Shona is a Bantu language of the Benue-Congo subgroup in Niger-Congo within the Niger-Kordofanian family. The most closely related languages are Tonga (spoken in Zambia and Zimbabwe) and ChiNyanja and ChiChewa in Zambia and Malawi.

There is a considerable degree of variation within the many dialects of Shona. Each of the dialects has a number of subdialects within it. All of these have differences in pronunciation, phonology, morphology, and lexical items. Most dialects are partially intelligible with Karanga and Zezuru Shona, the two main dialects of the language.

Current Shona orthography uses Latin script. The actual pronunciation of the characters depends upon the dialect. The symbols <bh> and <dh> represent breathy or murmured voiced consonants, while <b> and <d> represent sounds similar to those found in English. The symbol <g> represents three sounds: [g] as in the initial sound of the English word ‘girl’; [g] as in the final sound of the English word ‘bug’; and a third variant not attested in English. All three sounds, however, are contrastive in the language despite the fact that they are all orthographically identical. Tone is not indicated.

Shona has a canonical five vowel system, a, e, i, o, u. There are two tones, high and low. Tone is important in Shona and distinguishes both lexical items and functions in the grammar. Shona also has depressor consonants that cannot be pronounced with high pitch and whose presence lowers the pitch of neighboring tones, both high and low.

Typical of Bantu languages in general Shona displays a noun class system with around 21 classes, although the exact number of noun classes ultimately depends upon the dialect. The noun class of a particular lexical item triggers agreement on dependents of the noun and on the other subject and object agreements that the noun triggers. Typical nouns have a class prefix and a stem. The noun classes are usually put together into singular/plural pairs, so that class 4 is the plural of class 3, for example. Some classes also serve secondary functions such as diminutive or augmentative.

As is also common in Bantu languages, verbs are highly agglutinating. Shona verbs always consist of at least a root, subject prefix, and final vowel (The imperative lacks a subject prefix.). Verbal complexes may also contain morphemes for object agreement, tense/mood/aspect, adverbial, passive, causative, reciprocal, etc. There are two past tenses, one for recent events (today) and another for more temporally distant events (those having happened before today). The form of negation varies according to the verb form. Thus, infinitive and finite verbs have different negative morphemes.

Shona has a number of "ideophones" or emphatic expressions that are formed with the verb meaning “say". These often add vividness to a description.

The basic word order is SVO. This ordering can be altered for emphatic purposes, for example.

Shona is the dominant language of Zimbabwe. In addition to its seven million native speakers, close to two million people speak Shona as a second or third language in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and Zambia. As such, it is a highly established written language with a developed literature. However, although it is taught in schools, it is not the general medium of instruction beyond primary school. Many speakers of Shona speak English as their second language. Consequently, English is used as a lingua franca in the countries in which Shona is spoken.

According to tradition, the Shona people migrated from the north to their present location, possibly from the Lake Tanganyika area. It is also believed that the Karanga descend from the people of the Monomotapa or Mwene-mutapa empire.

Carter, H. and G.P. Kahari. 1986. Shona Language Course. Madison, Wisconsin: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin.

Dale, D. 1975. A Basic English-Shona Dictionary. Gwelo (Gweru): Mambo Press.

Fortune, G. 1955. An Analytical Grammar of Shona. Cape Town and New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

Fortune, G. 1977. Shona Grammatical Constructions. Harare: University of Zimbabwe.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Hannan, M. 1984. Standard Shona Dictionary. Harare: College Press and Literature Bureau.

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