Uganda Conservation Foundation

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Speaking 'Uglish'

Having travelled extensively around the world, I have always attempted to learn at least some of the local language even if it is just to say 'hello', 'thank you' and 'one more beer please'. Although I must confess that my ability to learn any more than those few words in a foreign language is pretty useless. 

The problem in Uganda however is that there are over 40 indigenous languages, with English and Swahili being the official languages even though neither are themselves indigenous to Uganda. For most Ugandans English is often their second language and things are not always expressed in the same way that we would express something. So as a result of 12 years of living here I now have a fairly good grasp of the language we call 'Uglish'.

Here are some examples:

Always greet someone before asking them a question, Ugandan's enjoy long lengthy greetings and find it rude if you do not. A simple greeting is ' Good morning/afternoon. How are you? ', await their reply then follow with your question. Two short sentences, a greeting followed by a question is much easier to understand than the thoroughly British "Excuse me sir, sorry to bother you but would you mind telling me ......?" That just got you nowhere. 

Furthermore, the answer to ‘hello’ becomes ‘fine’. Ugandans don't greet with a simple ‘hello’, but always with a question demanding you to respond, preferably affirmatively. If you are not fine then the appropriate response would be "Somehow okay". So, given the Ugandanisation of the English language, ‘fine’ is the appropriate answer to ‘hello’.

If you are asking a question always make sure that the person actually understands the question first and try to avoid questions that can be answered 'yes' or 'no'. As a way of being polite people will often answer the affirmative even though they did not understand the question in the first place. 

The term "Up-country" comes from the old British railway system in which all trains leaving London were referred to as “up trains” and trains heading into London were “down trains”. This was regardless of the actual direction in which they were heading. As a result Ugandans refer to anywhere outside of Kampala as "Up-country". So the Uglish use of 'up-country' is 100% correct, if somewhat archaic.

Ugandans with limited English often get confused when speaking numbers particularly with such large denominations of the local currency, so if you are quoted a figure that does not sound right to you or seems an odd amount, ask them to write it down. There is nothing more uncomfortable for everyone than having an argument with a driver who you think has quoted you 12,000 but actually meant 120,000 just pronounced it wrong. 

"Sorry" tends to be used in different ways in Uganda. Ugandans are perfectly correct to use the word to express sympathy and sadness for something undesirable that has happened to someone but because there is nothing attached to the 'sorry' it comes across more as an apology and for something that they didn't do. 

Children whose fathers are brothers are considered siblings in most African societies and as a result the terms 'cousin brother' or 'cousin sister', are used to identify the "close" cousins.

"You have been lost" is a greeting given when you have not seen someone for a long time. The word lost is used to mean the word missing. One would say "Eeeh, but you are lost."

"Thank you" In some Ugandan languages, the same verb can be used express thanks, congratulations, and appreciation of a job well done. It is normal for a Ugandan doing his job to be thanked for his work by a passing stranger. Similarly the expression "well done" is also commonly used as a general greeting.

"You come! We go!" translates to "Come with me and I will take you there".

If someone tells you they have a problem and are 'going to talk to the cow and consult their advice' don't jump to the same immediate assumption that many of us have. A Chief Administrative Officer is an appointed government official who is the head of a local government district. The acronym for this person is CAO, but pronounced COW! 

How 'the what' creeps into each what? each sentence! Many Ugandans like to put their statements into the form of a question, which they then answer immediately themselves, often accompanied by a choir of voices from the attentive listeners. In other words, "People often insert ‘the what’ in their what? their sentence to ensure that people do what? that people listen carefully to what? the answer!" - well, at least that's my guess. 

Some English words have a peculiar meaning widely understood within Uganda but mystifying to foreigners. The origin of these usages is obscure. The best known example is probably "to extend" which in Uganda means move over on a seat to make room for someone else. A particularly useful piece of information if you are travelling by public transport. 

When being given directions, the word “slope” means turn, and “to down” means to the end. Neither word implies any incline. So, “Turn left then go to the end of the street” becomes “Slope left and go all the way up to down” 

But sometimes its just the use of the wrong word even though it has a very similar meaning to the one that was meant.

And my favourite one:

"A short call" has nothing to do with telephones !! If someone is referring to ' a short call' it implies the use of the toilet. The phrase "Can you please direct me to the toilet" should be replaced with "I need to take a short call" or "Where are the short calls?". You may not be directed to an actual toilet in some cases but you will be directed to somewhere that you can 'take a short call', even if it is just a bush. And in case you are wondering, the term 'long call' is not generally used. 

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