I say, I say… a bit of linguistic awareness

23 05 2011


As a teacher of English language for a good number of years it was quite common for me to correct English often: for students (repeatedly), on shop signs (some times) and to lament the rape of the language in newspapers. 

Coming toAfricachallenges my desire to set the world of English aright. Firstly to try to correct it all would be plain exhausting, and then I try to be accepting, non-judgmental… blahblahblah. 

I am fascinated by how certain turns of phrase are just different in different parts ofAfrica, obviously due to differences in the root language.  One such difference is in whether something is available or not.  When ordering food in a hotel I have learned to ask if a certain food is ‘there’.  (eg – is chicken there?)  In our first week or so we saw the hotel offered Fruit salad and ice-cream – yum!  We asked for this and the waitress returned to say “The ice-cream is missing”.  (we imagined the chef, crossing his kitchen and opening his deepfreeze.  There would be a look of utter disbelief across his face: “Aw, the icecream.  It is missing!  Where has it gone?”) Now I am quite familiar with the response – ‘The icecream is not there.’

Another difference is in using ‘please’ more often than we would in SA.  I ask,  “Can you tidy my table?”  The reply is “yes, please.”  Or ‘Do you have icecream?” The reply , ‘yes please.”     (I am still trying to determine the linguistic reason for this one.)

Another fascinating use is the term “Well done”.  We have not met people before, but they will greet us and say, “Hello. Well done.”  Or if a night guard enters our compound he may greet and then say ‘Well done’.  I am not totally accustomed to receiving praise so readily!  This morning we had breakfast at our old hotel where we had spent the first month or so, and the waiter there knew I was trying to get a few Lugisu phrases into my head. When he saw our familiar faces he greeted us, and said the now familiar “Well done”. I asked him about this and was surprised at how positive a greeting this is. 

In Lugisu one will greet: Mulembe (Hallo)  Oriena? (How are you?)

Bulyi (I am fine).     Next can easily follow ‘Whakenyala’ – Well done. 

From what I could determine from the waiter, this is a recognition of whatever the person has accomplished since last seeing them (or not). It seems that people know living here is tough; just coping from day to day, and completing habitual chores calls for congratulations.

But there are times that the pathetic use of English, particularly in publications, frustrates every English brain cell and spinal nerve in my body.  Every single day English will be twisted in the newspapers. I have not kept all these manglings – I do not have enough note books for that.  But here are a few I have seen in the past few days:

A sign at the library this morning:  “Stealing/mutilation or insinuations of library materials is a serious crimes.”

  (How do you insinuate books?  I wonder if they intended “incinerate”? Then just say      the word people will understand… BURN.   Grrrr)

What set me off with all this was the clipping from Saturday’s newspaper: 

If you are publishing something nationally, PLEASE edit it!  There is small difference between                                            and                                                 . 

In a land where Judaism forms a miniscule part of the makeup, and outbreak of rabbis may well be received very well.

Until the next bad sign,  farewell!




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