COLUMN | Written Shona has now been around for decades. It’s time we added accented letters to it

Pedestrian Opinion With Mike Murenzvi

“Vana vana, vana vana vana, vana vana vana-vana. Pana vana vangani?”

This is a well-known “Shona” linguistic riddle which, when written, looks like a complete repetition of one word, with some punctuation thrown in for good measure.

The riddle translates into English as follows, “Four children, have four children who have four children each. How many children are there in total?”

The Shona dialects – Zezuru, Karanga, Manyika, Korekore – as well as the Ndau language, are some of the tongues spoken in the land between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers known as Zimbabwe. These languages are highly tonal, and the meaning of words or phrases can change significantly with the change in tone.

The Doke Effect

The “Shona” language is an interesting collective of what have been conventionally referred to as dialects that contain largely the same vocabulary. The grouping of the languages under the common banner of “Shona” was ostensibly done by Professor Clement Doke between 1929 and 1931 and published in his report titled, “Report on the Unification of the Shona Dialects.”

This seminal work brought together the work done separately by various Christian missions and created a common written system for the language using Zezuru as the “standard”. The use of a Zezuru standard was purportedly mainly because it contained most of the characteristics of the languages combined, it had the least dialectal differences, and it was spoken in the central region of the country.

The Doke report standardised the Shona alphabet and brought with it some interesting characters defined by the International Phonetic Association (IPA) on the basis of one sound, one letter. In the two revisions of the standard, in 1955 and 1967, these characters were phased out and replaced by combinations of ordinary letters as we use now. This decision was mainly to allow for greater use of the standard printing press and expand the reach and appeal of Shona literature.

While Doke may have closed off written Shona to a Zezuru standard that wouldn’t consider some of the intricacies of the other constituent languages, his work is, nonetheless, considered as one of the greatest contributions to the written form of the combined language.

Of Accents and Tones

As mentioned in the opening, the Shona languages are all about tone and pitch. While these are easily determined in speech where speakers can almost immediately tell the general language of the other, it is not as simple in text.

Using the opening example, “vana vana, vana vana vana, vana vana vana-vana”, the two-syllable word “vana” is literally translated as follows:

Tone (High, Neutral or Low)Meaning
N NChildren
N LFour
H Nhave
N NChildren
N LFour
H NWho have
N NChildren
N L – N LFour-four

Contextually, the phrase translates to, “Four children, have four children who have four children each.”

As seen above the tone is extremely important in determining the meaning and context of the word. These stresses currently don’t exist in written Shona and, thus, make it difficult to understand and interpret written works. Without knowing the base language of the author, one can be forgiven for ascribing the wrong meaning to certain common words, e.g. kunyara (Zezuru – to be embarrassed, Karanga – to be tired, Ndau – to my hand).

My limited appreciation of accented letters would propose that the same phrase be rewritten as follows:

Vana vanà vána vana vanà, vána vana vanà-vanà.

This format uses the accent acute (forward leaning /) for high tones, the accent grave (backward leaning \) for low tones above the vowels, and no accent for the neutral.

Other formats of these accents or diacritics exist but these ones make use of the Latin (Roman) script that we ordinarily use.

It is the Doke report that recommended that accents on letters be omitted using the following rationale;

“Long experience with systems containing accented letters has shown that in practice the native African very frequently omits the accents, and confusion arises in consequence. Experts in the psychology of reading say that dots and accents give a blurred outline to words and thus impair their legibility. Printers find that dots and accents wear out more quickly than the letters, and are therefore more apt to become indistinct in print.”

I think this view was from a colonial position that the “native African” was a primitive and lesser person and incapable of understanding a writing system (dots and accents) that has been in use in European languages for centuries. The final position that context is enough for understanding the meaning of the written text also rejected the linguistic intricacies in favour of unification and standardisation.

A surprising element though is that the language examples from the Doke report make extensive use of accents to illustrate the tonal pronunciations across the dialects as shown in the extracts below.

Beyond Doke

While the development of written Shona owes a lot to the work of Doke, 90 years later we must be cognisant of the era and framework in which he wrote it and the further developments attributable to the country’s independence.

Language development should be an evolutionary process that either keeps a language and culture alive or discards it to the ash heap of history. Perhaps with more literary works developed in the distinct Shona languages, this development may yet come about as per Doke’s conclusion:

“By regulating the use of grammar, by definitely fixing the orthography, and by permitting as great a freedom as possible in the choice of vocabulary and idiom, I have every hope that a rich literary language will develop naturally and ultimately become an asset to the literatures of the world.”


Mike writes in his personal capacity and his views don’t represent any organisation with which he is affiliated.