Divided by the Word refutes the assumption that the entrenched ethnic divide between South Africa’s Zulus and Xhosas, a divide that turned deadly in the late 1980s, is elemental to both societies. Jochen Arndt reveals how the current distinction between the two groups emerged from a long and complex interplay of indigenous and foreign-born actors, with often diverging ambitions and relationships to the world they shared and the languages they spoke.

The earliest roots of the divide lie in the eras of exploration and colonization, when European officials and naturalists classified South Africa’s indigenous population on the basis of skin color and language. Later, missionaries collaborated with African intermediaries to translate the Bible into the region’s vernaculars, artificially creating distinctions between Zulu and Xhosa speakers. By the twentieth century, these foreign players, along with African intellectuals, designed language-education programs that embedded the Zulu-Xhosa divide in South African consciousness.

Using archival sources from three continents written in multiple languages, Divided by the Word offers a refreshingly new appreciation for the deep historicity of language and ethnic identity in South Africa, while reconstructing the ways in which colonial forces generate and impose ethnic divides with long-lasting and lethal consequences for indigenous populations.