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The Ndebele in the nineteenth century were the first to use the name "Shona" to refer to the peoples they conquered; although the exact meaning of the term is unclear, it was probably derogatory.Later, white colonists extended the term to refer to all groups that spoke dialects officially recognized as Shona.In the twentieth century, there were three major changes in the demographic and settlement pattern.First, the acquisition of large tracts of land by white settlers for commercial agriculture, until shortly after World War II resulted in a situation in which half the land was owned by well under 1 percent of the population, with limited access to land for the vast majority of the rural population.A sharp drop in mortality rates and longer life expectancy between 19 meant that almost sixty-three percent of the population sixteen to thirty-four years of age.The statistical impact of the AIDS epidemic on the population will not be clear until the next national census in 2002, but that disease is considered a major factor in higher maternal and infant mortality rates. All the national languages, with the exception of the official language, English, are Bantu, a branch of the Niger-Congo language family.

Its political and religious center was probably Great Zimbabwe, a city of ten thousand to twenty thousand people built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries by the Rozvi dynasty.Most jobs continue to be found in urban areas and employment income rather than income from farming is the most important factor in the standard of living among smallholder families.The third major change has involved the age profile of the population.Shona and Sindebele are the most widely spoken, and students are required to take at least one of those languages.The four main dialects of Shona—Zezuru, Kalanga, Manyika, and Ndau—have a common vocabulary and similar tonal and grammatical features.

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Other languages spoken in Zimbabwe are Tonga, Shangaan, and Venda, which are shared with large groups of Tonga in Zambia and Shangaan and Venda in South Africa. The national flag and the Zimbabwe bird (the African fish eagle) are the most important symbolic representations of the nation.

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