Saturday, August 20, 2016

Zimbabwean Newspaper's Article About Shona Language & English Language Naming Customs

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents a long excerpt of a 2014 online article from a Zimbabwean newspaper about Zimbabwean naming customs. Selected comments about that article that were posted on that website's page are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the unnamed author of this newspaper article. Thanks also to the commenters who are also quoted in this post.


…Our Shona names have become some of the few remaining signals that can still be detected on the cultural radar.

They provide a window into our thinking and understanding.
Yet, very few people understand or care to find out what Shona names mean.

After a careful study of Shona names-especially those that are considered by a lot of urbanised and westernized people as weird and outlandish, I have come to the conclusion that, just because we do not know or understand the context and circumstances a person was given or got a name, we should not judge them or think their parents were really mad to give such a name.

The Shona give names for various reasons, and rarely is name just a name.

One Shona naming belief is that if a child cries incessantly for a very long time, then the elders would say that there is an ancestor who wants their name to be given to that child.

It may not be a matter of a child crying incessantly, but the child could also get very sick and the sickness could confound doctors and herbalists.

The belief was that after consulting diviners, an ancestral spirit would be identified as the cause, and it was only after the consultations that the child was given the name of the ancestor with certain rituals being done, that they stopped crying and recovered...

Usually ancestral names are very long and are some kind of narrative because they are trying to capture a story. Ancestral names reflect the history and context of the person who was originally given that name.

When one listens to ancestral names in this day and age, the names sound very strange and to a lot of people the names don’t communicate, unless one is told the story behind the name.

Even today, I have come across first names that are very traditional such that they need unpacking...

They could be ancestral names or just names of some late family hero, but they are used to capture history and specific family events.

In some cases, they are meant to remind, chide, expose, and mark. You will notice that some are in the form of rhetorical questions. Some of the names tell stories of regret, revelation, despair, and even defiance. It is the same philosophy that Zimbabweans try to apply to their names in English.

Zimbabwean names in English are very weird because we often try to use the same philosophy behind African names. Unfortunately, we at times end up with very strange and sometimes hilarious names like Avoid, Shame, Someone, Punish, Nevermore, Jealous, Jealousy, Notice, Bigboy, Loud, Lust, Last, TryThanks, Admire, Greenfield, Welshman, Steady, Easy, Psychology, Parables, Action, Rise, Wonder, Polite, Forget, Immigration, Museum, Letters....

Out of context, a lot of names given by the Shona in English are very strange, but if you investigate the reason or story behind a name, you will come to a conclusion the same names in the Shona language are not weird. Here are some examples of strange names of Shona people in English and what they may possibly mean in Shona: Reason = Chikonzero. Shame = Nyarai, Nyadzisai. Rise = Simukai/Mukai. Wonder/Shamiso. Clever= Ngwaru/Ngwarai. Shine = Chiedza. Steady = Dzikama. Nomatter = Hazvinei. Godknows = Kuzivakwashe/Mwarianoziva. Of course, the other reason for weird names like Lust can be attributed to birth registration officers not knowing the correct spelling and the intended meaning...

African names are culture-specific. Take, for example, my grandmother’s name Mazvirega (you have stopped it). The story is that her parents had lost a number of babies in their infancy. When she was eventually born, they did not give her a name for some time because they did not want to give a name and then watch the child die like the others had done. So, after the child had survived for more than a month, the family gave the child a name, but in the process addressing and rebuking both death and the ancestors by saying “This one has survived, and you have stopped your habit of killing our babies”.

The Shona gave names, and some still do up to today, based on events. It could be events before the child was conceived or even born, or it could be events when the child was born. Others get names from personalities that the parents may idolise. Like these days, a lot of baby boys are being named after European soccer players-Ronaldo, Rooney, Lionel and others. You may come across people with names of the Chimurenga heroes such as Parerenyatwa, Tongogara, Takawira, Chibwechitedza, Gonakudzingwa and that immediately tells you that they were either born during the struggle or that their parents were somehow involved in the liberation war. My late uncle and freedom fighter named his children Tichavatongamabhuna, Gonakudzingwaruvimbo, Madenyika and Tapembedzwa who was born at independence. You can tell that personal experiences and historical events informed their choice of names.

Even when it comes to giving foreign names, the Shona still have a logical story behind the name. My nephew’s wife is called Miriam and when I asked her why she got that name when both of her parents were not Christians, she said when she was born, she cried for a very long time and someone jokingly said “This one is Miriam Makeba”.

That became her name. There is a generation of people who have no idea at all who Miriam Makeba is, but to those who grew up in the late 60s and 70s – Miriam Makeba was a great singer.

The city being a place that is completely different from the village where everybody knows everybody, tends to have another strange naming culture…. It is also becoming fashionable for soldiers to answer to the name Gunman.

This explains our veneration for guns and power. Whatever the case, it is important for Zimbabweans to know that a name is an identity marker and a source of pride if it is positive."
Here are some selected comments from that article’s page
(All of these comments are from 2014):

Shomwe Nucleus
"Some of our vernacular names cannot be translated to English and still retain equivalent meaning. There are some names that become a challenge especially if one goes to live in English-speaking countries overseas. Names like Kissmore, Psychology, Takemore, etc. Wish it was cheap and easy to change first names when one comes of age.

Our Shona names are beautiful even for those who wish aspects of Christianity in their children's names"

gerro (to) Shomwe Nucleus
"I would urge anyone with a' funky' name to go and change their names by deed poll its not at all expensive, I did it and i feel so free. .what's in a name > You!

"That is the reason i have changed my name to my beautiful Ndebele name Thandiswa yet I'm Manyika, it still points one to my cultural identity and I love it.

"Any name has meaning to the family. There is a reason why someone calls their child "Reason" - ndicho chikonzero. If we can name the child Chikonzero, why can't we name him/her Reason? The names are not for us who do not know the family dynamics to unpack but for the families to unpack."

"i am sorry to say this as it might anger a lot of people , but mostly its uneducated people who like to give their children english names, names they know nothing about whose meanings are alien to them. i believe you should name your children in your vernacular"

"long winded muddled up essay. Names like Joseph or Imaculatta (Roman Catholic) were given mainly on baptism at the Missions. Most names of adults in traditional Zimbabwe were "mazita emadunhurirwa" that they got, not at birth, but in adulthood."

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1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that I happened upon this article about Zimbabwean (Shona) personal names. I found it very interesting reading, & it made me wonder about the differences in the naming customs in Zimbabwe and in the USA.

    For example, it seems to me that we (Americans) rarely use adjectives as personal names- although adjectives are often used as nicknames. And our personal names don't usually tell stories or reference events, although there are exceptions to those points. But those exceptions are usually considered "unique" - and that's the most positive description that is given to names like "Early" (an African American woman I know who is in her late 60s who got her name because she born prematurely), and "Love" - an African American woman I know in her 40s whose maiden name happened to be "Lee" (although "Love" is a noun and not an adjective).

    In the United States adjectives are usually used as nicknames and not first or middle names. And sometimes they are used facetiously like naming a bald man "Fuzzy" or a tall man "Shorty". And a lot of times a person's nickname is much better known than his or her given (birth) first name or a first name that he or she chose or was given later on in life -such as the first name that I now go by.

    And speaking of my African name ("Azizi"), it was interesting to note that the author of that article on Zimbabwean names didn't mention any importance given to how the name sounds or "looks". I think that African Americans who choose or are given African names (or Arabic names or KiSwahili names that are forms of Arabic names such as my name "Azizi") are very interested in the way those names sound and look (spelling). I think that we usually conform to American preferences for names that are no more than three syllables. Although we have learned to pronounce the vowels in such names using "Spanish" pronunciations (such as the letter "a" pronounced "ah" and the letter "i" pronounced "e")", we usually pronounce those African (and Arabic) names with the emphasis on the first syllable for two syllable names and the second syllable for three syllable names -even if that's not the way those names are pronounced in the languages they come from. Furthermore, we (African Americans and other Americans) don't usually like unfamiliar consonant clusters- for example the beginning consonants in the names "Nyarai", "Nyadzisai", "Ngwaru" and "Ngwarai". Part of the problem is we don't know how to pronounce those letters. And I think another part of the problem is we have been (informally) socialized to consider those consonant clusters as the opposite of aesthetically pleasing.

    I believe that African Americans do consider the "sh" and "ch" sound to be aesthetically pleasing. And -particularly among contemporary (late 1960s on) afrocentric African Americans - the "a" (ah) ending sound is very very common among the "African" names that are given to females.

    For that reason-although it wasn't included as a name in this article about Zimbabwean names - I think the Shona name that is most likely to be a hit with afrocentric African Americans is the name "Shona".

    An African American woman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who passed away some years ago was given that name. She was a wonderful traditional African dancer-although I believe that her style of dancing was influenced more from certain traditional Senegalese dance forms and Congolese dance forms. RIP Shona Sharif. Thanks for the memories.

    And thanks again to the author of this article and its commenters on that page.