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The use of “indigenous” and urban vernaculars in Zimbabwe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2007

Departments of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies and Linguistics and African and African American Studies, The College of Liberal Arts, Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA 16801
State University of New York, Buffalo, Department of Learning and Instruction and Polish Studies, 505 Christopher Baldy Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260,
Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Zimbabwe, Box MP 167 Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe


This article analyzes the reasons for and the effects of the language shift in Zimbabwe represented by the increasing use of pan-ethnic lingua francas, or urban vernaculars, of local origin. It is suggested that essentialist/primordialist assumptions about “indigenous” languages that feature prominently in current accounts of language endangerment should be made more complex by understanding their historical and social origins. In Zimbabwe, this means understanding the origins of Shona and Ndebele during the colonial period as the product of a two-stage process: codification of dialects by missionaries, and creation of a unified standard by the colonial regime. In the postcolonial context, these languages and the ethnic identities they created/reified are giving way to language use that indexes not ethnic affiliation but urbanization. The article adduces data showing that as Zimbabweans move with relative ease across language boundaries, urban vernaculars express their shared social experience of living in postcolonial urban environments.The authors would like to thank Xingren Xu for his technical support during the writing and revision of this article.

Research Article
2007 Cambridge University Press

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