Oriental and Shona language similarities: Part One…more to words than meets the ear


JAPAN and Zimbabwe are very far apart in terms of distance.
The Japanese people, however, also differ from Zimbabweans in terms of race.
Regardless of these differences, the languages of these peoples are very similar.
The Shona language is made up of consonants or word beginnings like ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘f’ and so on with the vowels ‘a-e-i-o-u’ to produce all the words in their linguistic arsenal.
The Japanese, likewise, combine consonants with the vowels ‘a-i-u-e-o’.
This is the reason Shona sounds like Japanese and vice versa, even to the untrained ear.
We can thus see the Japanese Ambassador to Zimbabwe writing the Zimbabwean national anthem in Japanese and singing it by reading a language which resembles his own.
However, the two languages do not just sound alike.
They are actually very similar to each other in many respects and could have common origins after all.
‘Koko’ means ‘here’ in Japanese.
The same word, ‘koko’ is used in chiKaranga and means ‘there’. In Japan, morning time is known as ‘gozen’.
Similarly, night time in Japan is called ‘banheru’.
This is almost identical to the Shona word ‘manheru’, which means evening.
In Japanese, when one is saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’, they say ‘hai’ and ‘iye’ respectively.
In chiShona dialects like chiKaranga, they say ‘ehe’ and ‘hayi’ to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively.
Even phrases like ‘whose is this’ sound alike when spoken in Shona or Japanese.
In Shona it is ‘nderani’, and in Japanese ‘dareno’.
There are also Japanese words that sound like Shona but have totally different meanings.
For example; ‘tanaka’ means ‘field’ and ‘amai’ means ‘sweet’.
Similar words or phrases exist in Shona meaning; ‘we are now fine’ (tanaka), ‘mother’ (amai) and ‘power of the lord’ (simbarashe).
Besides these, there are Japanese words that simply sound fitting to be Shona though they do not exist in the Shona language. ‘Sakana’ means ‘fish’, ‘oishi’ means ‘delicious’, while ‘hataraki’ means ‘work’.
Strict grammar is also a feat found both in the Shona and Japanese language.
There are no shortcuts in the Japanese language and things can only be said in a certain way in order to pass off as eloquent.
The same applies to Shona and is not true for more grammatically flexible languages like English or Chinese.
Since the coming of whites to Zimbabwe, the Shona language has been faced with the challenge of enriching itself by incorporating within it words that refer to things that were introduced to the land and people post-colonisation.
Some words were logically constructed from the Shona language such as ‘runhare’ meaning ‘phone’, ‘gidi’ meaning ‘gun’ and ‘mbozha-runhare’ meaning ‘cellphone’.
Such logical language formation is very much evident in the Chinese language.
Words like computer are called ‘diannao’ which literally means ‘electronic brain’.
The phone is called ‘dianhua’ meaning electronic speech and so on.
Though the objects referred to are Western in origin, their names are independent and not based on English but the Chinese vernacular.
There are also Shona words that were simply sounded out from their English source.
These can only be deciphered for their meaning through knowing the English words.
For example, ‘motikari’ from ‘motor car’, ‘tsvigiri’ from ‘sugar’, ‘sipo’ or ‘sepa’ from ‘soap’ and so on.
These had no Shona words until they were introduced to Zimbabwe at the close of the 19th Century.
Other objects were existent prior to the coming of whites but still got modified to sound English.
For example, the word ‘bhutsu’ which was derived from ‘boots’ as opposed to ‘shangu’, ‘ngirozi’ from ‘angels’ as opposed to ‘mhondoro’, ‘heti’ from ‘hat’ as opposed to ‘ngowani’, ‘sauti’ from salt as opposed to ‘munyu’.
Such terms that are not solely based on Zimbabwean vernacular speech but English are aptly called ‘Shonglish’, meaning Shona and English combined.
They are often used in less-cultured places like urban areas as a sort of creole, particularly by individuals who are not very eloquent in unmixed chiShona.
This feat of language evolution that took place in the Shona language is similar to that of Japan.
The combination of Japanese and English which results in hybrid diction similar to our ‘Shonglish’ is more evident in the Japanese language than other Asian countries like China.
Japan has been a de facto US colony since its defeat after the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombings at the close of the so-called Second World War.
Since then, US military personnel presence has been rampant in places like Okinawa.
The language and culture of Japan has since been patented to fit the foreigners in that land.
For instance, ‘karate’ which means empty handed or unarmed fighting was set up for foreigners to understand it and not taught in its original form.
This began just after Japan lost to the US and karate became popular among US war veterans who returned from the orient.
The same took place for the Japanese language.
The US ensured that from the time of their entering Japan onwards, the Japanese language would be made simpler for Westerners to understand.
Logical word formation based on Japanese vernacular language would come to be compromised.
The anglicising of the Japanese language would begin and both pre and post-colonial words and phrases would be prone to modification.
Now in Japan, ‘biru’ means ‘beer’, ‘teberu’ means ‘table’, ‘terebi’ means television, ‘konputa’ means ‘computer’ and so on.
Even a new form of writing to incorporate the non-Japanese words was introduced and is known as ‘katakana’.
At least this helps decipher foreign words from Japanese ones just by mere visual inspection.
The tragedy is, like Shonglish, the quality of language decreases as it strays from its source.
On the other hand, it is enriched when language is upgraded to suit new words that were previously inexistent, as long as it is based on the vernacular.


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