Shona anthroponyms as summaries of the namers and the named’s experiences
artwork of Thó Simões
Shona names are badges of identity and individuality. They come about as a result of a family naming its own members at birth or at a ceremony that is usually ritualistic as when a person assumes a new name and responsibility as head of a clan or becomes a nun in a religious order, especially in the Roman Catholic Church. Naming can also result from the community that may give a person an additional name as a result of that person’s behaviour or that of his/her parents or clan. Parents and families give names to their offspring informed by their experiences and expectations. There are other instances where the community or a member of the community gives a name to a particular individual, in order to describe that particular person. When that descriptive name sticks, it becomes an identity tag for the named person. With the passage of time, such a name that may be coming about as a result of the named’s behaviour or other activities, would evolve into a family name or surname. In yet other instances, an individual gives himself or herself a name, usually as a boast about his or her achievements. This article therefore seeks to analyse some of these Shona anthroponomys and unravel some of the stories behind them.
The theory that informs this paper is the Afrocentric one which focuses on naming practices. Among most Blacks, names are not just given. The naming practice is more than just the attachment of a label. It is an act that is meant to mark the coming into the world of a new being, either through birth or through new experiences. Because of this, names are laden with a lot of meaning. Fasiku (2006: 53) amplifies the African worldview on names when he states that among the Yoruba of Nigeria, no one bears a name without a reason and no name exists without explanation or justification. Among the Bantu, names are also often used to express the namers’ ideals, aspirations, sorrows and philosophical comments (Finnegan 1976: 471). The idea of experiences and expectations is the major underlying factor that influences how the Shona, who like other Africans name their children. According to Neethling (in Makondo 2009: 33), name-giving among the Bantu cultures reflects the socio-cultural circumstances of the group or clan. De Klerk and Bosch (in Makondo (2009: 34) also add on to this understanding of the factors that influence the Blacks’ naming practices when they state that African names often retain their meaning-bearing function and are much less arbitrary, their meaning generally being transparent and accessible and often recording complex details about their bearers. This framework can however best be understood if before proceeding; the names, which are part of language, are put into their proper perspective.
Names as part of language
Names exist as part of the sociolinguistic milieu. They are part of every society that gives them and they act as a window through which the world is understood and appreciated. Through names, members of the community can express their experiences, feelings, joys or even sorrows. Names function as conduits of information, especially on society’s attitudes or observations towards the named (Mapara, Mutasa and Nyota 2009: 9 January). For one to appreciate these names there is need to have good knowledge of the imagery and metaphor of the language. The value of names as a case of language in action (Ngugi 1987: 15) is very well captured in the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis (in Mazrui 2004: 41). Mazrui states that according to Sapir, human beings are very much at the mercy of the particular language, which is part of the medium of expression of their society. Sapir observes that the fact of the matter is that what people consider to be the real world is largely built upon the language habits of the group. He goes further to express the idea that there are no two languages that are ever sufficiently similar though they can be considered as representing the same social reality. Benjamin Whorf (in Mazrui 2002: 41) shares a similar opinion with Sapir and states that speakers of different languages will map the world in different ways. This is so because each person’s basic ontology or worldview is structured or determined and organised by language. According to Whorf, each language is encoded with a particular mode of thought, a metaphysics that affects the speaker’s experience at the level of perception.
The views that are expressed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis ring true when they are applied to the study of Shona names. Walt Whitman in (Fromkin and Rodman 1988:1) also presents the significance of names as part of language in action:
“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”
The words of Walt Whitman suggest that language emanates from society and the same society uses language to communicate through words and symbols. Through words and symbols, it enables people to evaluate and appreciate the world that they live in. One of the ways in which people use language to this appreciation is through the naming practices that they adopt.
As an aspect of language, names can be used to fuel or minimise conflict because they become conduits through which people communicate their emotions and perceptions. Finnegan (1976: 470) amply captures this value of names when she asserts:
“There have been many different interpretations of these names. They have ranged from the psychological functions of names, in providing assurance or ‘working out’ tensions to their connection with the structure of society, their social function in minimising friction, or their usefulness in expressing the self-image of their owner or in providing a means of indirect comment when a direct one is not feasible.”
Finnegan goes further to observe that names among other issues also express aspirations and philosophical comments (1976: 471). In short therefore, names capture and communicate an awareness of life’s up and downs.
The Structure of Shona Anthroponyms
Shona anthroponyms fall into the category of substantives in Shona morphology. The Shona substantives include nouns and qualificatives, namely, adjectives, pronouns, enumeratives, quantitatives, selectors and demonstratives. Because of the nature of their being names, Shona anthroponyms fall into the category on nouns, despite the fact that some of them may be made up of adjectives, selectors and even copulatives. As nouns, they share the same constructional pattern with other nouns. The general structure of Shona nouns is: noun prefix (np) - + - noun stems (ns). Shona nouns have twenty-one (21) classes and they are classified according to their prefixes. Ordinary human beings are in classes 1, 1a, 2, 2a, 2b and 6. Other human beings depending on other qualifications like size, profession and the like can be found in the following classes: 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 19 whose prefixes are commentary. In class 1, for example are ordinary nouns like murume (man). The constructional pattern of this noun is:
noun prefix (np) - + - noun stem (ns)
mu- + -rume
When most nouns in class 1 are pluralized, they fall into class 2, whose noun prefix is /va-/, hence murume becomes varume. Some class 1 plurals are also found in class 6, whose prefix is /ma-/, for example, mapurisa. The singular form is mupurisa (policeman). Names in noun class 1a refer to personal names. These have the /∅-/ symbol that represents the noun prefix. For example, the name Nyika is divided into its least meaningful units as: ∅- + -Nyika.
Some Shona anthroponyms are sentential in nature. This means that they can be deverbative, nominal or a combination of both nominals and derverbatives. The overall effect of this is that their general constructional pattern remains the same, that of noun prefix - + - noun stem, but when the stem is further analysed it can be broken into even lesser units as the following examples highlight. Fortune (1985: 32) states:
“The constituent class of ns is a very large one and we must here give some indication of the various types that exist. The main division is into simplex and complex stems. Simplex stems consist of only one segmental morpheme whereas complex stems consist of various combinations of morphemes.”
The name, mu-kudubu-kudubu is derived from the ideophone. Its complex stem is –kudubu kudubu which is a reduplicated idiophone (Fortune 1985: 33).
The name mu-nhu-rume has two stems –nhu and –rume. The constructional pattern of munhurume is as follows:
np- + - complex stem
mu- + - nhurume
The complex stem is made up of two stems derived from the names munhu and murume. It is –nhu-rume (ns + ns)
The examples given above are of complex nouns or complex nominal constructions at their easiest. When it comes to the actual practice of name creating, any combinations are possible. In fact, a study of Shona names is a synopsis of all Shona constructions. This is so because in Shona anthroponyms one can come across those that combine nouns, verbs and even idiophones, for example, Goremusandu. This is constructed as follows:
∅ - [Gore - mu - sandu].
np [noun - mu - idiophone].
The name Chandiringa, is a deverbative noun. This is constructed as:
∅ - [Cha-ndi-ring-a]
np [ complex stem]
The stem is an inflected verb phrase whose constructional pattern is:
ch – a – ndi - ring-a
sc/sp-ts-op – vr – tv (subject concord/prefix - tense sign - object prefix - verb radical - terminal vowel)
Some names are sentential, in that they are made up of a subject and a clause as in the name, Munhundiani. This anthroponym is a combination of subject or noun phrase, munhu and a copulative phrase as a predicate, ndiani. Its constructional pattern is:
∅ - [munhu - + - ndiani]
np - [np - + - copulative phrase].
An Analysis of some Shona Anthroponyms
The giving of names is largely circumstantial. This does not matter whether the name is given at birth or even later in life. The events taking place at a particular time determine the name that the identified person gets. Kahari (1990: 281) sums up the situational aspect of the naming practice when he asserts:
“The custom of giving proper names to human beings, domestic animals, modern transport and places operates under a system determined by social conditions and the environment. In this respect, Shona names have significance – even if the meaning is lost – and are ‘situation tied’.”
In the above words, Kahari makes it clear that, the namer, through the naming act conscientises and mobilises the community into analysing and appreciating their situation or that of others in their immediate environment. Some of the issues that are addressed in Shona names include the socio-economic, socio-political and religious ones.
Names are not just identity tags that make the named subjects of their immediate environment only. They are also expressions of knowledge. They may be given to express sorrow, disappointment, to boast or even to show appreciation. To give a name may also mean to teach as well as to express value judgements, especially when one gives a nickname for either endearment or to express dismay and protest. Names can also be used to express fear and awe.
The meanings of names are best understood in a cultural context. Those who know and understand the language metaphorically and figuratively are the ones who can best appreciate the meanings that the names convey. A study of some Shona anthroponyms makes it clear that to analyse some of them is not just to go through a goldfield, but is also to negotiate a dangerous minefield. This is especially so when one analyses some nicknames. According to Pei (1965: 76), “Nickname” is an “ekename” an additional name bestowed usually for purposes of precise identification. Pei’s statement is equally true of some Shona anthroponyms, especially nicknames.
In socio-economic situations people are usually identified by their prowess and status in society. Those of limited means at times got names that described their station in life. Of the names the current researchers came across in Manicaland’s Nyanga District, Makoni District as well as Harare district in Harare metropolitan province three names stand out. These are Masimirembwa, Nhokodzembudzi and Mautsahuku. These three names refer to high levels of poverty that can be observed in the named and their families. These names have become family names (surnames). According to the information that the researchers got, names like Masimirembwa (one who wears dogs) refer to dire poverty. In the pre-colonial society food gathering was part of the economic life, and to adequately provide for the family one had to be a successful hunter, ironsmith, farmer, or in any venture that one chose to specialise in. If one was a professional hunter (maisiri), he was expected to kill big animals like elephant, kudu and buffalo. Even when one went out on hunting safaris with others, he was expected to be among those who brought down big game. If one was always killing rabbits and daisies, he was derided and viewed as poor. This was largely because the hides of bigger game were also used for making nhembe (skin aprons) that were the major dress item in traditional and pre-colonial Zimbabwe. The name Masimirembwa came about as a result of colleagues challenging the unsuccessful hunter by stating that he would have to kill dogs to get their hides so as to get skins for making aprons for himself and his family since he could not kill the proper animals.
The name could also refer to anyone who had been unsuccessful in other ventures like farming or being an ironsmith. This is because if one was successful in his trade he could barter his wares even for animal hides. If one was not successful the same name could be given to him.
Another name in the socio-economic realm that captures the idea of abject poverty is Nhokodzembudzi (Goat droppings). The first impression one may get when this anthroponym is mentioned is that it refers to the richness or wealth that the named possesses. This is so because goat droppings are known to be good manure. For those with an inclination towards African Traditional Medicine (ATM) also known as alternative medicine, goat droppings remind one of their value as a cure for snake bites. However, names like Nhokodzembudzi are not as straightforward. They are the ones that Finnegan (1976: 473) describes as:
“The colourful often figurative quality of many of these names should be brought out. There are, of course, many names which are relatively straightforward with little overt meaning. Others, however, are richly allusive.”
But it is also known that for one to successfully decipher the meaning of names of a particular language, s/he should have adequate knowledge of that language’s imagery and metaphor. Most Shona speakers would understand the name to also mean poverty of high propositions. The image that is created when one visualises goat droppings is that of waste that gets scattered as soon as it hits the ground. It is this image that is transferred to a person who after making efforts to ensure that he is successful in his ventures; he sees his efforts coming to nought in circumstances that seem inexplicable and difficult to comprehend. It is this loosening up of his enterprise that would have led people to describe him as Nhokodzembudzi, which when produced, come out as one lump but break into different lesser droppings when they hit the ground.
Mautsahuku is a name that the bearers have as a surname and they are found in Nyatate, Nyanga District in Manicaland. In the Manyika dialect kuutsa means to herd. The name therefore means one who herds domestic fowls. In pre-colonial times, as well as in most rural areas in colonial Zimbabwe, cattle were a status symbol. They are still up to this day. People are known to herd cattle and goats, with the less fortunate ones herding donkeys as well as sheep. It is unheard of that one can herd fowls. The name, as the other two discussed above, implies that one is in dire poverty. The poverty is of such magnitude that the only livestock that he has is that of free-ranching fowls. It is these that people in the local society would see as the only livestock that the named has and that the society mocks him by stating that he can only herd these.
The name is significant because it implies that since the named can only herd fowls that means that he cannot cloth his family since fowls have no hides. Its meaning is therefore equally loaded like the one that is found in the name Masimirembwa.
A study of Shona names also reveals that names like the languages that carry them are dynamic. The dynamism of names is compared to a river that picks what it can and some items along the way. They are also like a snake that casts off its slough for another (Mapara, Mutasa and Nyota 2009: 9 January). In an environment where new objects and experiences are constantly coming up for example, as a result of language contact, it is an imperative that new names and terminologies to reflect and carry new realities do come up. Some of these realities are captured in the names that the Shona people give to their newborn children, or as nicknames to members in their society. An example of one such name is Mushayabhachi (one without a jacket). This name contains an adoptive, bhachi, (jacket). This name, like others discussed above is one that refers to one’s soci-economic status. It again refers to one who is of limited financial means, or who has none at all, one who cannot even afford a jacket. The name is sentential and made up of subject, mu-, verb, -shaya- and object -bhachi. The name means one who is so poor that he cannot afford to buy a jacket of his own. The poverty may be a result of unknown misfortune, or some other calamities that members of the public may not realise or fail to sympathise with, so the name becomes a symbol of lack and want. The name Mushayabachi like the others discussed earlier confirm that naming conventions are strongly by culture. The same names are also human resources for identifying and categorizing different people according to culture and other related issues.
The name Mushayabhachi is also a modern version of the idiomatic expression: Musvuuganda dzvinyu risina gushe. (Plain skin, a lizard without a single fur). This idiom means one who is of limited or no means at all. The named is one who is looked down upon.
The names that have been discussed above started off as nicknames that later evolved into family names (surnames). Their value lies in the fact that they may be forms of rebuke that were made by the community in an effort to educate the youths on the dangers of failing to work hard. Kahari (1990: 283; 2009: 54) best sums up the importance of nicknames. He argues that a nickname is a name that an individual is given by the community which is usually descriptive because it sums up that individual character’s physical shape or idiosyncratic indications. He goes on to state:
“From these names, it is possible to see which qualities they endorse and which they discourage, and to derive a hierarchy of values constituting the Shona world view …” (1990: 281).
One other such name is Neshuro. According to Mr. Machimbira, a schools inspector with the Ministry of Education, Sports, Arts and Culture, the area that is today Chief Neshuro’s was parcelled out to him by his in-laws. He is said to have been so poor that when he got married he had nothing to pay with as bride price. He had to mortgage his labour for a wife. The only present that he could give was of a few hares, so it became the general talk in the area that “Akaroora neshuro” (He got married using hares). The result is that Neshuro became the identity tag of the person and that started off as a nickname but that later evolved into a family and titular one.
Not all nicknames describe people who are in unfortunate positions. There are some that the name holders at times give themselves as boasts about their generosity, achievements and other material possessions that they have. These are names such as Nyamupangedengu (One who gives by the basket) and Mazvimbakupa (One who yearns to give). These two names fall into two sub-categories. Nyamupangedengu is a family name, while Mazvimbakupa is a clan praise name. What these two names have in common is the idea that the name bearers are very generous. The name Nyamupangedengu is prevalent in Nyanga District’s Tombo area. It is an ownership phrase because it is prefixed by /nya-/ (owner). As an ownership derived name, it means that the named owns or has the capacity to give generously. The fact that they give by the basket (dengu/chitengu) and not by a small basket (nhengwana) means that they are very generous. The basket has in this context to be understood metaphorically. It means abundant generosity. While the name does refer to the generosity that its bearers have, it is also a pointer to the socio-economic status of the named. People can only give away a lot if they have so much in abundance. The name is also indicative of people who are hard working such that they always have surpluses that they can afford to give away. The name as well highlights the fact that the name bearer(s) is endowed with a lot of wealth. The first bearer of such a name could have been someone of high estate who was possibly a very successful hurudza (farmer) that is why the name has dengu in it, since traditionally it was largely grain that could be carried in a dengu. The name may also mean someone who may not necessarily be of high social standing materially, but one who is charitable. Such a name therefore encourages others to be charitable as well. In such a situation, the words of Fasiku (2006: 52) ring true when he asserts:
“Some names are used to accentuate and situate the significance of an experience, event or phenomenon, and like proverbs, are instruments of arousing, defining, manifesting and establishing the expectations, aspirations and consciousness of the bearers.”
Another name that refers to generosity and being charitable as already mentioned above is Mazvimbakupa. The name carries the message that the bearer is one who has a strong urge to give. While in other dialects of Shona kuzvimba means to swell, in the Korekore dialect and other forms of old Shona, the word kuzvimba means to have a strong yearning or desire. This name is a clan praise name of those of the Tembo-Samaita totem. Their totemic animal is mbizi (the zebra). The other variant name of this is Zvimbakugova (Swelling with the desire to share/distribute). It really means having a strong yearning or urge to distribute. While the name may at the beginning of the clan have been used to refer to a progenitor of the Tembo-Samaita who had a lot of wealth, it is not surprising that today, some of the people who have this same praise name may have names like Mautsahuku (fowl herder), Mushayabhachi (One without a coat), or any other such name that may reflect extreme poverty. Those who use the name Mazvimbakupa today largely use it with full knowledge that they do not lack materially and financially. Some of them may also use it in reference to the abundance of love that they claim to have for their women, so they declare that they yearn to share that love with them.
Although names like Mazvimbakupa and Nyamupangedengu are boasts of what the name bearers claim that they can do, there are other names among the Shona that put emphasis on the importance of working hard. Even though among the Shona there are trade different specialists, almost every family is involved in subsistence agriculture. There are however, some people who are lazy and are not interested in cultivating their pieces of land. Such people have not been spared in the naming culture of the Shona but have had nicknames, which are additional names that the society has bestowed on them for purposes precisely identifying their shortcomings (Pei 1965: 76). Some of the names that are given include the following: Karadzandima, Kasiyandima, Karimanzira, Kagurabadza and Muhlamaenza (Mutyamaenza).
The name Karadzandima (One who lets the field lying unattended) is an apt description of a lazy person. It is a miniature statement that sums up the behaviour of the one who has this as a nickname. This name and others in this category, does not come about overnight but is a product of a long period of observation that may span over several farming seasons. Usually the person who ends up being called Karadzandima would have become known for giving lame excuses that cause him (it is in males who in most cases get such names) not to attend to his fields. Such a person is also known for embarking on an agricultural activity but never pursues it to the end. The result is that his family is perennially one that is always begging for food. In pre-colonial times, such families ended pledging their daughters into marriages so that they could keep hunger at bay. This name has evolved into a family name. Those who carry it today are not necessarily lazy, but its meaning is a pointer to its origins.
Kasiyandima is related to Karadzandima. The name means one who abandons his patch of land. The Shona people do not always speak of large areas or quantities. The reference to something small does not mean that one really means it. Hodza (1980: 14) gives a very good example in the poem “Mukwerera” when the people who are asking for rain from their ancestral spirits ask for ‘donhwe’ (a drop). To the Shona it is a polite way of asking for a lot. Therefore, when one is referred to as one who abandons his patch; it means that the person is lazy because he does not complete the agricultural task that he would have set out to do.
When one is named Karimanzira (One who tills the path/thoroughfares), it means one who never makes an effort to get into the field to do some tilling. This person is known for being always on some type of journey that does not allow him room to settle down and attend to his fields. The community gives the name when it realises that this person’s journeys always come up during the rain season when agricultural activities are at their peak. The name may also have come about as a result of the fact that the named person would even pass through areas where others would be working on their plots. It is normally after such a person would have passed by that the others working in their fields might comment, “Uyu ndiKarimanzira chaiye” (This one only tills thoroughfares).
Kagurabadza (Hoe breaker) is one of those names that refer to a person who is not just lazy and does not till his plot, but one who ensures that the agricultural implements are not there because he breaks them to create an excuse. The name does not mean that he breaks hoes only. He may not bring his oxen into the pen so that he has a justifiable reason for not going to work his fields. In some instances, the person may assist a neighbour with his implements in the off-season and conveniently forget to collect them so that he does not go to his fields giving shortage of implements as the main reason. The person named Kagurabadza is what the English may refer to as a carpenter who blames his tools for poor workmanship.
The Shona as the above names reflect are people who despise laziness especially when it comes to agricultural matters. The names that they give sum up their negative attitude to such behaviour and they say a lot about the person who is named. One such name is Muhlamaenza (Mutyamaenza). The name means one who is afraid of summer. On the surface the name seems to imply that the named is afraid of summer because of the threat of lightning. While this is a plausible reason, the name really means one who is afraid of summer because this season calls upon him to get into his fields and work. If it were a woman being named she would probably have been called Murwarazhizha (One who falls ill in summer). The name Muhlamaenza also means someone who continuously gives excuses that stop him from preparing his land for planting. Such people find different excuses that will ensure that they do not go and work in the fields.
Analyses of the anti-laziness names that the foregoing four paragraphs have discussed are major pointers to the ills that the Shona people do not condone in their communities. These names have a didactic function in that they condemn the ills that the youngsters have to refrain from. While the names like Mazvimbakupa and Nyamupangedengu highlight the levels to which the youths should aspire, the others are comments and statements on behaviour that the community at large would not accommodate, let alone condone. Finnegan (1976: 471) confirms the value of names as conduits of communication that highlight those aspects that the Shona consider as positive that they like the young to emulate. Some of the names are also pointers to the pitfalls that the youngsters should avoid. As such, these names become expressions of the Shona people’s aspirations, sorrows as well as dislikes. They are philosophical comments that at times are vehicles of humour.
A study of Shona onomastics also reflects a religious slant, especially one that relates to the burden and misery caused by death. While death is inevitable, and is viewed among the Shona as a rite of passage as is reflected in the statement ‘Apfuura’ (She/He has passed on), its frequent occurrence in certain families has led to a naming practice whereby members have given names to children that reflect this frequent happening. The names are also indicators of those families’ acceptance and resignation to this fate. Some of the names that reflect this resignation include the following: Tarusenga, Tarusikirwa, Chandiringa, Hapazari, Hakuzari and Nyamayavo.
The name Tarusenga is a cry of despair from a family that feels that death would have become too common a visitor to their family such that they end up feeling that they are carrying it. The name therefore means we have carried it. The same is true of the name Tarusikirwa (we were created for death). In both names, Tarusenga and Tarusikirwa death is not mentioned by name but is referred to through the use of /-ru-/ the subject concord. This is because among the Shona as already discussed in the above paragraph, death is not readily mentioned by name because its mention, especially in the period before the HIV and AIDS scourge was frightening since it was largely an occurrence that was believed to afflict the elderly.
Chandiringa means ‘It has targeted me.’ The name like the other two in the foregoing paragraph is a statement of helplessness. According to informants, the family could have been named as a result of the head of the family responding to being consoled and asked by other family members, “Zviri kumbodini samusha?” (What is happening?). His response is said to have been, “Hameno. Chandondiringawo.” (I do not know. It has just targeted me). From this time on he was referred to as Chandiringa and his children and descendents acquired the family name Chandiringa.
The names Hapazari and Hakuzari are also related to death and its inevitability. The first name refers to earth and is a statement that despite the fact that people have been dying, the earth has not filled up. The name may be a shortened version of the statement Pasi hapazari (The earth does not fill up). The second name implies that the heavens do not fill up. In full, the name is rendered as Hakuzari kudenga. This comes from the Shona belief that spirits of the dead ascend to heaven. As far as the Shona are concerned, people have been dying since time immemorial but the heavens where they are believed to ascend have never filled up. The name is therefore a statement of the acceptance of the permanence of death in people’s lives.
This paper among other aspects has highlighted the fact that names are a product of language use in society. They are a form of communication and as such, the paper has argued that names are not just thrown at people or even objects, but are a product of conscious decisions and at times collective understanding. The consciousness of the namers comes out clearly as it is realised that names are a précis of people’s experiences. The paper has further observed that besides being summaries of people’s experiences, Shona anthroponyms are also expressions of expectations. One other aspect that has come out of the paper is that some names have evolved from nicknames, into family names and finally into titular ones.
*with Jacob Mapara
Zimbabwen. Jacob Mapara holds a PhD in African Languages from the University of South Africa and his thesis is on the reliability and validity of the Shona novel as a historical source. He is a senior lecturer in Literature at Great Zimbabwe University in Zimbabwe where he is also the Acting Director of The Institute of Cultural Heritage.