The evolution of Zimnglish and Zimrhetoric, part 1

Oct 15, 2010

Zimbabwean English is fairly 'standard' in most ways. But it has increasingly developed its own interesting idiosyncrasies in recent years. There is the natural 'localization' of the language that grows apace as the colonial era slinks further into the past. Then there are also the unique usages that have developed due to other influences. Some of those include the sense of the country being embattled and politically isolated
from the Western world, the economic and social upheavals of the past decade and so on.  

When you live within a particular society, the ways that the languages are evolving may not be as obvious as to an 'insider' who now reside outside and visits periodically. As a result, word usages that are taken for granted within the society because of their gradual adoption can sound odd or interesting to the insider who has been away for a while, let alone to a foreigner-visitor. The visitor may not know the local context (how and why it came about, specific usage, etc) of a word or expression, or be used to a different usage for the same word or expression.

This struck me during my trip home to Harare this August far more than my visit the previous August, perhaps because I just had more time to relax, look around and listen than on previous visits.

Some of the words and expressions that seemed to jump out at me were not so much new to my ears, but did so from my just not hearing them used as much or at all during my years away from home, or at least not in the same way.

Traditionally the Zimbabwe Agricultural Show starts at the end of August. It is an important event in the life and economy of a deeply agricultural country, with lots of publicity surrounding it. I was its official spokesperson for a few years.

It struck me this year that as always before, for the government media, especially The Herald, in the weeks before the show, preparations for it are always said to be at an advanced stage. This expression is used without fail every year. On the first day of the show a lot of the stands were still being worked on so the expression may more closely mean 'the time of the show is fast approaching' than literally that preparations are advanced.

And for The Herald the show does not so much start as it always roars into life!  Again, having attended the show this year on its first day, which is traditionally slow but seemed even slower this year, my impression was different. It it seemed to me to have actually started with more of a whimper than a roar, although I understand that attendance and general activity went on to pick up during the remaining days of the exhibition. 

In ordinary spoken interaction Zimbabweans will speak of going to the hospital or clinic for treatment, or going to court to defend oneself in a traffic or other case. But 'hospital' and 'court' are too pedestrian-sounding for some politicians and media. They will instead talk of the health delivery system, or the justice delivery system, usually in the context of where these systems are not working as desired.

When The Herald wants to depict some big official as being very witty and humorous at a public gathering, it will write how the official, often the president, had his audience in stitches with enjoyment. This is not so much a way of reflecting the real wit of the person but of humanizing the great man, showing not only how clever he is but that he is a down-to-earth man of the people with a good sense of humour. The fact that if the president makes a joke the audience must laugh out of politeness, respect or fear is beside the point. 

Sometimes the expression is also used in regards to ordinary people, but not always in a salutary way. A court witness or defendant who makes a fool of himself on the stand can also have the audience 'in stitches,' but in this case as a display of his buffoonery.

Here's  another good Zimbabweanism: Zanu PF is currently at sixes and sevens over conferment of hero status on its fallen colleagues. 

I understand this expression to describe confusion is widely used in Britain, but it struck me in the newspaper article in which it appeared because it is not much used in Zimbabwe. But I'm including it here because it has a very nice Zimnglish sound to it. I can imagine a Zimbabwean enjoying using this expression during a weekend discussion between friends over a barbecue, people pontificating on the affairs of the day with beers in hand.  

I don't know if there are many other countries that officially declare some dead people as various grades of 'hero.' This practice has become increasingly controversial in Zimbabwe because of the partisan nature of the selection process, the arbitrariness of the criteria and because of some of the dubious characters who have been thus honored on their death.

Those deceased persons winning the highest accolade of 'national hero' are buried at Heroes' Acre, which is not just any old burial ground but is the national shrine. You will almost never hear of anyone using the expression 'national shrine' because of its pretentious stuffiness, but in the written government media it is a hallowed if awkward expression, to separate it from the unheroic 'cemetery' or 'graveyard' that ordinary people end up in hen they die.

Most people would say, 'I am going to the offices of the newspaper' to place an advert, or 'I a going to the bank.' But in certain situations this will just not do in Zimbabwe. In those cases newspapers are media houses and banks are financial houses. I think both expressions are supposed to suggest more weightiness, but they do also manage to sound like very ancient, stiff English.  

People attending a music concert or nightclub, especially if they are rowdy with loud music and lots of alcoholic drinks served become revelers and guzzlers. Ar

Makone lamented that corruption was no longer a secret and promised to institute investigations and bring culprits to book. She is a government minister and was in a newspaper article 'lamenting' the widely-known, years-long corruption involved in getting a passport. The officious-sounding expressions used are a clear signal to any experienced reader that absolutely nothing will effectively be done. Zimbabwe must have thousands of 'investigations' of all kinds going on at any time but rarely are they concluded or the results known, let alone any culprits 'brought to book.'      

The current coalition government between ZANU-PF and the MDC is a very uneasy co-existence between them. They fight continually over turf. At some point the MDC prime minister begun to claim powers which it was felt by ZANU-PF only its president could exercise. To make it clear to all who is who, the government media at some point in 2009 suddenly begun to write and say, 'President Mugabe, the Head of State and Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces.'

People have got used to hearing and reading this mouthful, so in a way the intended effect has been achieved, to dissuade anyone from any dreams they may have that Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC prime minister had anywhere near the same status as the president.

While perhaps serving that political purpose, its usage sounds a little desperate and over the top! It suggests a belligerent insecurity rather than coming out as a message of confident authority.   

Zimbabweans are an apparently very 'strategic' nation, always strategizing about one thing or another. So the newspapers are replete with government, NGOs and private companies talking about strategic frameworks in which they operate. Strategic retreats and strategic workshops are often held by the corporate sector, and strategic planning is very popular too.

The idea is to impress by giving a technological, sophisticated sound to ordinary events or processes. If you have to ask how strategic planning differs from ordinary planning then you are obviously not a top executive or bureacrat, so never mind! If you were you would know! So the use of these fancy-sounding words which may or may not mean anything is partly to separate the wheat from the chaff, a sort of class system. 

A 24-year-old man from Malala area in Beitbridge left the local community shell-shocked when he allegedly hit his 10-month old baby against the floor before banging its head against the wall for crying at night.

Shell-shocked is used almost exclusively by The Herald to indicate a level of traumatized surprise beyond the ordinary. I don't know if there is any other nation that experiences shell-shock outside a war situation! But it's a nice example of a Zimnglish-like expression.

If you were writing for a financial newspaper you could say something like, 'less support for the sector in the budget' if you were say, writing about the minister of finance allocating lower amounts of spending for it than the year before. But here is a neat Zimnglish way of saying the same thing: declining budgetary support from the fiscus.

Get it? No one actually uses the word 'fiscus' orally, although perhaps bankers and economists do amongst themselves. But that's just the point, it's use automatically says you are writing for/speaking to sophisticated people, and that you are sophisticated too! 'Fiscus' is not a word for the masses but for the elites of society, so its usage partly depends on which 'media house' is targeting which audience. 

Black empowerment has been a heated issue for many years now in Zimbabwe as the country tries to even out racially-defined differences in standards of living, a tall order and complicated business. But the expression black empowerment sounds a little odd in a country where the population is perhaps close to 99% black. It smacks not so much of a majority group assertively seeking more fairness for itself from past unfairness it was subjected to, but sounds more like a marginalized minority group pleading for fairness.  

Zimbabwe is one of the few countries I am aware of that has a classification for how it refers to its businesspeople. There are regular businesspeople, and then there are indigenous businessmen  (I'm not sure why, but you much less frequently hear of indigenous businesswomen, although there are many of them.)

Its use makes it clear to the reader/hearer that the person being referred to is a black Zimbabwean, but that's not all. It also indicates a person running his own business, perhaps struggling in the first few years of establishing himself. A black executive working for a big 'white' company could not be said to be an 'indigenous businessman' because he was salaried and working for a 'non-indigenously' owned company. For the purpose of this discussion I am leaving aside the fact that there are non-blacks with generations-deep roots in the society who now argue that they are as 'indigenous' as any black Zimbabwean. In its daily usage the expression as used by the person-on-the-street specifically excluded non-blacks when using the term 'indigenous businessman.'

It sometimes is used pejoratively, to suggest that the person referred to is just starting out, and that his skills, honesty etc must be considered suspect until proven otherwise.

This idea is changing as the indigenous businesspeople come from the fringes of the economy into the mainstream. But there was a time when they were considered freaks of nature, viewed not only with suspicion but with pity as well. After all, why would any sensible person with options choose to be self-employed? 'It must be because he was fired or doesn't have enough education to get a 'decent' salaried job' was the thinking of many.

As everybody knows, Zimbabwe's takeover of white-occupied farms was extremely controversial. For several years the Mugabe government launched a massive media campaign to defend its actions. One of the tactics employed was to demonize and try to silence anyone who expressed doubt about the wisdom of the actions or the violent methodology used. 

One of the worst, most dangerous things you could be accused of during that time was to be said to be 'trying to reverse the gains of the third chimurenga.'  'Chimurenga' most often refers to Zimbabwe's long and bloody war of liberation. By cloaking the new farm takeovers in chimurenga language they made any doubters automatically guilty of a terrible political sin. How could anybody, especially a black Zimbabwean, dare to question another war of liberation?!Did they not understand that the land is the economy and the economy is the land? It must be because they were puppets of the neo-colonialists, but they would be thwarted because Zimbabwe guarded its sovereignty jealously and will never be a colony again! Never ever! (the last one a favourite expression of Mugabe's) 

All these expressions have very much been a part of the 'revolutionary' period of massive farm takeovers and how they were sold and defended by the government.     

I mentioned earlier situations in which Zimbabweans can be described as being 'shell-shocked.' But they also do experience the ordinary variety of shock, sometimes even where you would not expect that they would.

A high HIV/AIDS rate has for many years meant that death and funerals have have become very frequent and familiar to the society, much more so than before.

Here is a recent article (The Herald, October 9 2010) where the expression of shock was typical, but where I thought it was surprising.
Pamela Tungamirai dies

By Tendai Mugabe

FORMER Zanu-PF Central Committee Member and Mabvuku-Tafara legislator Cde Pamela Christine Tungamirai has died. She was 56.

... family spokesperson Reverend Andrew Muchechetere said  Tungamirai’s health started deteriorating after the death of her husband in August 2005.

"She died today at the Avenues Clinic after heart and stomach complications. She was also having problems with her blood pressure. She was admitted three weeks ago after attending the funeral of one of her brothers because of blood pressure. She was, however, discharged.

"She was again admitted three days ago at the same clinic but the medical staff indicated that her condition was stable. It was with shock that we learnt of her death at around 4am," he said.

Zanu-PF national secretary for finance Cde David Karimanzira  said he received the news of  Tungamirai’s death with great shock. We were aware that she was having health problems, but we never thought that she will die so suddenly and unexpectedly.

May she rest in peace. Of course there is a way in which no matter what precedes it, any death is 'shocking' because of its finality and its reminder that we all face the same fate.

But in the case of my example, both quoted individuals express 'shock' at the death, and one of them even 'great shock,' but in the same breadth they go on to give details of  the progression of the illness of the person and her hospitalization. That would seem to indicate that the death was far from sudden and should not really have been a 'shock' to those who were close to her.

But this has become the expected language to use, especially on the death of anyone of some political prominence. The death is always 'shocking,' even where it is public knowledge that the deceased had been on their death bed for some time. You will almost never hear it said of anyone, 's/he had been severely ill and in pain for some time, in and out of hospital with no improvement, and has finally succumbed to their illness and will now rest and be free of that pain.'      

When 'shock' is expressed where it shouldn't really be and where a serious, long-term illness was public knowledge it seems to almost be a mockery of the deceased. 

At the peak of AIDS deaths, many people were simply said to have died of a long or short illnesses, rather than to have died of cancer or some other specific cause, in the way someone who would have died in a shooting or an accident would have the cause of death mentioned. And no one ever actually died of AIDS, a testament to the stigma that continues to be tied to a cause of death that is still somehow considered 'wrong' or a reflection of the deceased's morality, despite what is now known about how socio-culturally complicated the way it is transmitted is.        

While attributing the death to a long or short illness was/is partially a way of protecting the 'dignity' of the deceased (or perhaps the deceased's survivors), particularly in cases where the specific cause is widely speculated about or known, all this 'kindness' has done is to further prevent openness about illness, prevention and death.   

One of the ceremonial functions that president Mugabe seems to enjoy and have great stamina for is university graduations. Every few months there is an article and accompanying photo showing how he caps so many 'graduates' of this or that university. Do students in other countries get 'capped' or do they just graduate?

Mr. Mugabe is formidable at rhetoric. When he is an expansive mood The Herald will tell us how he hails this or that country or its visiting representative for its 'unflinching' support of his government against the many enemies conspiring against it. Being said to have been 'hailed' by him is apparently a high accolade.

But because of the regime change agenda his many enemies in the Western world are engaged in against his government, more often than not the government media will tell us how the president 'slams' them for their many sins. He particularly likes to do his frequent 'slamming' at high-profile events, say a UN conference in New York. The slamming is covered lavishly in government media, and stories about it almost always mention how it was accompanied by loud audience applause.

to be continued...  



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