Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent on Earth. As such, its countries are worthy of close inspection when it comes to their languages. This week, I’m exploring the languages of Zimbabwe, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the country with the most official languages (at 16).
Shall we jump straight in?
The 16 languages of Zimbabwe were given official status when they were codified by Zimbabwe's new constitution in May 2013. That moment marked the impact of centuries of history in Zimbabwe, with political and demographic factors majorly influencing the country’s linguistic landscape.
Today, languages in Zimbabwe showcase the country’s history and the diversity of its population. We’ll explore some of this below, but before we explore what languages are spoken in Zimbabwe, first let’s take a look at the country’s world record.
Zimbabwe is not the most linguistically diverse country on the planet. That accolade goes to Papua New Guinea, where some 840 languages are spoken. Nor is Zimbabwe the country with the most languages named in its constitution; India lists 18.
So, how have the languages in Zimbabwe scooped the world record for most languages spoken? According to the decision-makers over at Guinness, it’s because in Zimbabwe official languages are recognised as languages of the country as a whole. India, conversely, recognises its languages as being associated with certain areas of the country. Hence Zimbabwe takes the glory.
I want to spend a bit of time looking at what languages are spoken in Zimbabwe. To understand the country’s linguistic makeup, we’ll take a look at everything from history to education. In relation to the latter, it’s worth mentioning (just as an interesting titbit) that Zimbabwe is the most literate country in Africa, with a literacy rate of 95%.
What language is spoken in Zimbabwe more than any other? That would be Shona. 70% of people in Zimbabwe speak Shona natively, due to the historic influence of the Shona tribe and the ongoing importance of Shona culture. (Note that speaker numbers in this article are estimates, as Zimbabwe doesn’t conduct a census that counts speaker numbers of its different languages).
The Shona people ruled much of what is now Zimbabwe for centuries. Their influence began to spread in the 9th century and by the 13th they had gained control of the area, a position that they remained in through to the 19th century. This is why Shona is so important in terms of Zimbabwe languages to this day.
Where is Shona spoken? Today, the Shona people live mainly in central and eastern areas of Zimbabwe. Shona is a Bantu language that has five main dialects. They are Karanga, Korekore, Manyika, Ndau and Zezuru. You can discover more about the often blurred lines between languages and dialects via the link below.
The Latin alphabet is used when writing Shona and punctuation is the same as that used when writing English. That said, Shona uses a number of consonants that English does not:
• dz – dzavo
• tsv – tsvaira
• bh – bhara
• nzv – nzvenzvana
• ngw – ngwarira
• ts - tsoka
If you’re wondering how to speak Shona, it’s well worth researching in more detail. It is a phonetic language, with words pronounced how they are spelled, and vowel sounds don’t alter, so there’s plenty that makes Shona an attractive language to learn.
While the most used of the Zimbabwe official languages is Shona, Ndebele is also hugely important in terms of Zimbabwean culture and history. In terms of Zimbabwe official languages Ndebele is the second most spoken, with 20% of people in the country speaking it as their first language.
A Bantu language descended from Zulu (85% of the two languages’ lexicon is shared), Ndebele is today spoken mainly in western Zimbabwe, in Matabeleland province. It became a key part of Zimbabwe’s history in the early 19th century, when speakers migrated from KwaZulu, conquering the Shona and embedding their language in what is now Zimbabwe.
Interestingly, Ndebele goes by a number of names. Its speakers call it isiNdebele, while it was formerly known as Matabele. It is also referred to as Northern Ndebele and Zimbabwean Ndebele, differentiating it from language known as Ndebele that is spoken in South Africa. Though the two share the same name, they are different languages. If you want to discover more about the Ndebele language of South Africa, you can click the link below.
Another of the Zimbabwe languages contributing to the country’s world record is Tonga. Also known as Chitonga, isiTonga and Zambezi, this Bantu language has around 1.5 million native speakers in total, located in northern Zimbabwe, as well as in Zambia and Mozambique. Many Zimbabweans also speak it as a second or third language.
Tonga is not a standardized language. Some speakers use a bilabial nasal click while others don’t and speakers of the same dialect may spell words differently to each other.
While not a Zimbabwe main language, Tswana is nevertheless an important language there. It is also spoken across other parts of southern Africa, where is has around 8.2 million speakers in total. Also called Setswana, it is a Bantu language of the Niger-Congo language family.
Another of the official languages spoken in Zimbabwe, Kalanga is a Bantu language that includes whistled sibilants and palatalised, velarised, aspirated and breathy-voiced consonants. It is spoken in Botswana as well as Zimbabwe, with some dialectal and orthographic differences between the two variations of the language.
Venda is another of the Bantu Zimbabwe languages. It is spoken by Zimbabwe’s Lemba people, as well as by people in South Africa.
A relative of Kalanga, Venda is written using the Latin alphabet, along with five accented letters that aren’t used in English: ḓ, ḽ, ṋ, ṱ and ṅ.
Known outside Zimbabwe as Tshwa, Koisan is one of the 16 official languages of Zimbabwe. It has several thousand speakers, located in Zimbabwe and Botswana.
The languages of Zimbabwe also include Shangani, which is also called Tsonga and Xitsonga by its speakers. Shangani is spoken in southeastern areas of Zimbabwe. The language uses both dental and alveolar click consonant sounds, as well as modal and breathy voiced consonants.
One language spoken in Zimbabwe that is sometimes classed as a dialect of Shona is Ndau (though it is recognised as a language in its own right by Zimbabwe’s constitution). It has roughly 2.4 million speakers, spread across southeastern Zimbabwe and central Mozambique.
Chibarwe is a Bantu language that is also known as both Sena and Barwe. It has few speakers in Zimbabwe, but more in Malawi and Mozambique.
A Zimbabwe national language that is spoken in northwestern Zimbabwe (and in particular in the town of Hwange), Nambya is a close relative of Kalanga. It has around 100,000 speakers and is a tonal Bantu language.
Xhosa is another Zimbabwe native language that is recognised by the country’s constitution. Around 200,000 Zimbabweans speak it natively. Xhosa is known for having a great many click consonants, with these used in around 10% of basic vocabulary. Xhosa is an important language in cultural terms and Zimbabwe’s former national anthem – Ishe Komborera Africa – was based on a Xhosa hymn.
Chewa is one of the more widely spoken languages of Zimbabwe. Although, as I mentioned above, official figures aren’t available regarding how many citizens speak which language(s), it is believed that Chewa is the third most widely spoken native tongue in Zimbabwe. Also referred to as Chichewa and Chinyanja, Chewa is spoken mainly in northeastern Zimbabwe.
Refreshingly and unlike many other countries, Zimbabwe recognises sign language as one of its official languages. However, it doesn’t specify which sign language is the official one; research by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History lists Zimbabwe as having no less than seven. Some Zimbabweans also use American sign language.
A small number of Sotho speakers reside in Zimbabwe, though the language is more widely spoken in Lesotho and South Africa. Also known as Sesotho, it is a Southern Bantu language that uses the Latin alphabet.
British colonists arrived in Zimbabwe in significant numbers in 1888, bringing their language with them. Today, Zimbabwean English is a regional dialect of English that is spoken natively by around 5% of the population of Zimbabwe.
Despite this low level of first language speakers, of all the Zimbabwe official languages English is the one that is used for conducting official business and for schooling (though other languages are also used, depending on the region in question). Many Zimbabweans, therefore, speak English as a second language.
Zimbabwe is home to other languages, in addition to the 16 recognised by its constitution. Around 70,000 Zimbabweans speak Loki, for example, while some 800,000 speak Manyika (which is often classified as a dialect of Shona). Tjwao, meanwhile, has just 20 native speakers, located in Zimbabwe’s Tsholotsho District. They are all aged 60+.
Immigrant languages are also spoken in Zimbabwe. These include Afrikaans, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Polish and Portuguese.
Zimbabwe’s languages fall into three main groups. The majority of the country’s languages below to the Bantu language family tree. The exceptions are Koisan, which is one of the Khoisan languages, and English, which is a West Germanic tongue.
While some of Zimbabwe’s languages are used across much of the country, others have localised pockets of speakers. Let’s take a quick look at where some of these are located.
Both Shona and Ndebele are spoken extensively across most of Zimbabwe and particularly in central areas.
Along the country’s eastern border, there are sizeable pockets of Senga, Manyika, Ndau and Shona speakers.
Moving to the south, Zimbabwe has clusters of Tswa, Tswana and Venda speakers.
To the west of the Zimbabwean language map, Nambya, Kalanga and Koisan speakers are to be found, along with Tonga speakers in the northwest.
Like the languages of so many countries in the planet’s most linguistically diverse region, languages in Zimbabwe have huge political, historical and cultural connotations. On the subject of other languages in Africa, by the way, you can click the link below for more info.
From politicised use of language in modern-day Zimbabwe to its languages that are on the brink of extinction, language in Zimbabwe is a fascinating area of study.
What is the language of Zimbabwe? If this was your starting point today, I hope the details above have more than answered your question. To recap, I’ve run through:
• What languages are spoken in Zimbabwe
• Where the different Zimbabwe languages are spoken within the country
• Why Zimbabwe holds the world record for the most number of official languages
• Which language family tree branches Zimbabwe’s main languages belong to
I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on this exploration of the languages of Zimbabwe. If you have anything that you would like to share on this subject, please feel free to leave a comment below to join in the discussion and share your linguistic wisdom.