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Taylor Sharp, Akira Enderle, Ben Geffon, Emma Halverson, Cation Jones, Matthew Lyman, Kayla Scord, Hailey Scott, Caroline Zasadny, Dr. Michal Temkin Martinez, Dr. Tim Thornes

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Map of Africa, Zimbabwe highlighted

During the Spring 2020 semester, our group met weekly with Mr. Edmore Zhakata, a native of Zimbabwe and speaker of the Karanga dialect of Shona to document his mother tongue. Shona (ISO 639-2 code: sna) is a Bantu language spoken widely in Zimbabwe, a southern African country. Mr. Zhakata was born and raised Zimbabwe, and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He worked as a teacher in Zimbabwe before moving to Namibia, another southern African country, where he taught chemistry and math. In 2016, Mr. Zhakata moved to the United States, and he has lived in Boise for two years.

Our class met in person for the first seven weeks of the semester and began remote elicitations using Zoom with Mr. Zhakata after that. We are grateful that we were able to  continue our class project remotely with Mr. Zhakata.

What are linguistic field methods

  • Gathering linguistic data from native speakers of a language that is under-documented in linguistic literature.
  • Analyzing collected data to identify and document
    phonetic, phonological, morphological, and syntactic
    features, as well as translate texts.

Field Methods as Capstone

Documenting the distinct linguistic features of an unfamiliar language allows students to apply linguistic knowledge acquired in previous courses. In our course, we gained practical experience using methodologies we can later apply in graduate school or linguistic fieldwork.

Image of twelve squares, each featuring a person, all in a Zoom meeting.
Our class picture on Zoom


Shona has approximately 37 consonants and 5-7 vowel sounds. Included are some unique (marked) sounds that are not present in many languages around the world; particularly, whistled sounds where the lips are compressed throughout the sound and may be followed by rounding the lips upon release.

Sound Inventory

Table of the international phonetic alphabet featuring the consonant sounds of the Shona language. Contact authors for accessible chart.
Consonant Inventory of Shona


Syllable structure is Consonant/Vowel (CV), with words always ending in a word-final vowel. Shona exhibits consonant clusters in the forms of prenasalization and labialization. All sounds in a consonant cluster share the same place of articulation.

(1) CV Structure: ʃ̞oʃ̞e ‘ant’

(2) Prenasalized: ŋgoŋgoni  ‘wildebeest’

(3) Labialization: ana  ‘child’

Nasals can be observed in three different presentations in addition to its standard role as a consonant sound. The most common of these is prenasalization, as in (2) ŋgoŋgoni, where the [g] begins as a nasal [ŋ] and is released as a [g]. Occasionally nasals are fully syllabic, such as (4) ɓija (‘traditional clay pot’). Finally, nasals have a phonotactic effect on neighboring vowels resulting in those vowels becoming nasalized, as in (5) ɣ̥õngo̥ ‘yes.’

At the Word Level

Shona has at least 11 noun classes. Each noun class has singular and plural prefixes that attach to the noun. Additionally, each noun class determines the prefix that will be added to adjectives, determiners, and numerals that modify the noun, and determines the subject prefixes and direct object prefixes that will attach to the verb. From what we can tell, the noun classes are characterized by being part of a common semantic category.

#PrefixExampleAdjective Agr.English GlossSubj. PrefixExampleEnglish GlossObj. PrefixExampleEnglish Gloss
5 SGmu-mubeda 'bed'mubeda mutʃukured bedra-rakatʃenga(it) is cleanmu-akamuvakahe built it (bed)
PLmi-mibeda 'beds'mibeda mitʃukured bedsʔa-ʔakawoma(it) are hardmi-ʔakamivakahe built them (beds)
6 SGtʃi-tʃitina 'brick'tʃitina tʃitʃúkured bricktʃa-tʃakawoma(it) is hardtʃi-ʔakatʃibikahe built it (house)
PLʒi-ʒitina 'bricks'ʒitina ʒitʃúkured bricksʒa-ʒakawoma(they) are hardʒi-ʔakaʒibikahe built them (houses)

Independent nouns can act as the subject, object, or indirect object. However, Shona is considered a prodrop language, which means that certain nouns are able to be dropped from the sentence and the sentence will still make sense. This is accomplished via pronoun prefixes. In Shona, subjects must always be represented as a pronoun prefix (the prefix ʔa- below is the 3rd person singular pronoun prefix):

(6) ʔa-ka-ɲemʷereɾa
‘He smiled’

(7) mwana   ʔa-ka-tamba
child      SG.SUBJ-PAST-play
‘The child played’

Emphatic pronouns place an emphasis on the participant to whom they refer, like English’s emphatic “himself” (for example, “he himself did this,” not the reflexive “he did this to himself”). They are not necessary, since subject agreement is marked on the verb, but the speaker can choose to use them to emphasize who is doing the action.

(8) mose            ma-ka-ʒ͎u-ana
You (pl.) saw them’

(9) ʔa-nomaŋa        mazura     ʔose
      3SG.SUBJ-run PRN.SG.3
He runs everyday’

Possessive pronouns are pronouns used to indicate that a noun is possessed by a certain participant. Of the different types of pronouns in Shona, possessives are the only type to have forms dependent on noun class. They are made of a root, which signifies the person and number of the possessor, and a noun class marker prefix, which signifies the class of the noun that the possessive pronoun modifies.

(10) ⁿda-ka-gadzira                          ʔimba              j-ako
       SUBJ.SG.1-PAST-clean           house              AGR-SG-POSS.SG.2
‘I cleaned your (sg.) house’

(11) ⁿda-ka-gadzira                         ʔimba              j-eɲu̥                               mose
SUBJ.SG.1-PAST-clean          house              AGR-SG-POSS.PL.2      PRN.PL.2
‘I cleaned your (pl.) house’

(12) ⁿda-ka-gadzira                           ʔimba              j-ake
       SUBJ.SG.1-PAST-clean            house              AGR-SG-POSS.SG.3
‘I cleaned their house’

(13) ʔi-mba               j-aŋgo
        LOC-house       NCM.SG-1SG.POSS
My house’

At the Sentence Level

Based on our findings in the 7 in-class elicitations we have conducted, we can confirm that the basic word order in Shona is Subject – Verb – Object. Verbs in Shona can carry more information than we find in European languages. We can schematize verb structure using what is called a position class chart (see below).

Table illustrating verb position chart. For accessible version, please contact author.

Examples (14)-(17) exemplify Shona verb structure.

(14) mu-tsa-bika
‘You all will cook.’

(15) a-ka-u-bika
S/He cooked it.’

(16) nda-ka-i-taura
I told it (a story).’

(17) nda-ka-i-taur-ir-a                                                 kwa      ari
       1SG.SUBJ-PAST-it.OBJ-tell-TRANS-FV.           to
I told it to her/him.’

Additional Information

For questions or comments about this research, contact Taylor Sharp at