PhD research: Divergence and convergence in the history of the Shona languages: contact, migration, and change in a subgroup of Southern African Bantu

November 2023 to October 2027
Southern Africa
Bantu (language)
Research fields
Languages and Literatures

The Shona languages of Southern Africa form a large, closely-related and relatively well-studied group of Bantu languages. Despite a wealth of synchronic data on these language varieties, the history of Shona languages and their speakers is not well-understood. I will test a new proposal that would revolutionize the understanding of Shona’s linguistic history by recognizing what has been referred to as a ‘spread-over-spread’ event, bringing into question its position within Southern Bantu. Even though lexicon-based classifications strongly support a close relationship between Shona and Southern Bantu, many common Southern Bantu phonological and morphological innovations are not shared with Shona. Earlier studies suggest that Shona might be more closely related to Bantu languages of Malawi. Further, initial evidence suggests that successive layers of language contact in Shona correspond to large-scale contact events: the Great Zimbabwe empire, the Indian Ocean trade network, and European colonialism. In this study, I investigate this ‘spread-over-spread’ scenario in three ways: by initiating the reconstruction of Proto-Shona, by establishing the position of Shona languages within the Bantu family via lexicon-based phylogenetics, and by untangling successive phases of language contact in Shona. This research adds to the understanding of the genesis and evolution of Shona languages and their position in Bantu, as well as the early history of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.