Greetings from Kampala!

Well, I have left the calm of Gulu and jumped right back into the hustle and bustle of the capital.  We are back at the hotel where we stayed during orientation week at the beginning of the program, and it’s kind of weird but also pleasant.  It doesn’t feel like enough time has passed to make it possible for us to be back here yet!  But it is actually really nice to be seeing the rest of the group again (since there were only five of us in Gulu, I am getting reacquainted with 27 other friends!), and it’s convenient to have so many more resources available.  I do miss Gulu already, but I guess that’s life, right?  And probably especially part of the life I have chosen.

There’s actually not a ton going on right now, as I’m spending my days buried in the write-up of the last six weeks (it’s progressing, slowly).  The ride back was fairly uneventful, though I did manage to count 43 speed bumps in a row, each with about one bus length in between them.  It was absurd, and took a really long time.  Then we enjoyed about 30 seconds of no speed bumps before we went over 43 more.  I don’t understand the need for that, in any way.

But considering that was one of the most interesting things I could think of about the last few days, I’ve decided to post the blog I’ve been planning about linguistics in Uganda.  I’ve been formulating a list of the common Uganda-isms for awhile, which I’ve grouped into two categories: one for mannerisms/things that are just unique to Ugandan English and one for things that translate in an amusing way.  I hope you’ll find it interesting and possibly amusing, but if you’re not into language things, then you might just skip this one.

Ugandan English:

I’ve already mentioned the propensity for asking questions when speaking.  (For instance: “This is my what? My chart.”)  This is common, especially among the Baganda (and most people from central Uganda, around Kampala).  But I’ve also noticed that among educated Baganda, there seems to be an attempt to squash this tendency for question-asking in the middle of sentences.  This results in a really strange progression of tonal sounds during each sentence, because these people use the same inflection in tone that occurs when someone is going to ask a question, but then the question doesn’t occur, and in its place there is usually some sort of a pause or sound that indicates there is a “what” being suppressed.  (For instance: “this is my-eeee pause chart.”)  It’s pretty funny, and somewhat distracting once you start noticing it. This happens a lot during lectures, unfortunately.

Another common lecture phrase is used to check for comprehension/attention.  The lecturer will often say, “Are we together?” which I guess is the equivalent of “are you with me?” or something along those lines in the U.S.  They slur the words together a lot, though, and when I first encountered the phrase I didn’t even recognize it as English.

One of my absolute favorite pieces of Ugandan English is the use of the word “sorry.”  People here say “sorry” all the time.  First of all, it’s important to note that it is the translation of the Luganda word “bambi,” (not pronounced like the Disney movie, but with an “ah” sound…) which means something along the lines of “oh no/poor thing/too bad.”  It seems to me that in general, “sorry” in our English carries more of an implication of guilt with it.  You say “sorry” if you caused something that harmed someone else, but usually not if it’s not your fault (with the exception of conveying condolences about a death, I think).  But here, “sorry” is used in all circumstances.  If someone trips, bumps their head as they’re getting into the taxi, drops something, gets hit by a passing bicycle, etc., you say “Sorry! Sorry!”  Also, in Luganda, “r” and “l” are pronounced basically the same way, which often results in this expression sounding like “Solly, solly!”  I really like this use of it, because it makes a lot more sense than what I would normally say in the situation, which would be something along the lines of “oh, careful!” or “watch out,” both of which make no sense if the person has already had a mishap.

Another of my favorite things that people say here is “you are welcome.”  Whenever you enter ANYWHERE, be it someone’s home, a hotel, a store, or even if you walk up to a kiosk on the street, people welcome you.  I really like it, because it’s so friendly and warm.  I’ve started using this one myself as well.

I think I mentioned a while ago that restaurants don’t always have all the food on their menu.  When you inquire for a specific food (take peas for example) people usually say “they are there,” or “they are not there.” But sometimes, if they don’t have the food you are looking for, they will tell you “it is missing,” which I find amusing.  It makes me want to ask if they can go find it.

Then there is the use of the word “somehow.”  The meaning of that word here is something along the lines of “sort of,” or “a little bit.”  An example of how it is used: “I live somehow near the hospital,” or “The course is somehow difficult.” I like this one too, and have caught myself describing things as “somehow far” from time to time.

Ugandan people also have a propensity to add the word “please” onto a lot of things, which I find funny because in Luganda, the word for “please” is hardly ever used.  In fact, I never even learned a word for please.  But in English, if you call someone’s name, they will often respond, “yes please?”  And then there’s: “thank you please” and “welcome please,” for both sides of the thanking equation.  Those make me smile every time.

One of the truly great Ugandan English phrases, in my opinion, is their description of a general crowd of people, which can be applied when talking about the world at large or a general admissions ticket to a concert.  This ambiguous crowd of people, mixed together and not organized in any particular way, is called “General Happiness.”  I think it’s a fantastic way to describe such a situation.  General happiness.  It’s beautiful, isn’t it

Lost in Translation:

Anyone who has studied a foreign language in her past knows that sometimes things simply don’t translate into another language.  Greetings are sort of like this in Uganda.  I know I’ve mentioned that they are very important, and indeed they are.  When you greet someone, you have to ask them how their night was (if it’s the morning), and then you can proceed to how their family is, and thank them for the work that they do.  I especially like this last one.  As my Luganda teacher explained it, you always thank them, even if they’re not doing anything at the moment, because they might have done some work earlier in the day or the day before.  In Acholi, however, one way of greeting someone is by saying “Apoyo,” which literally translated means “thank you,” but in the context of a greeting is also thanking someone for the work they’ve done.  This means that sometimes when native Acholi speakers greet people in English, they will walk up to you and say “well done!” This was terribly confusing at first, but totally makes sense when you see where it comes from.

The other terribly confusing translation difficulty comes in telling time.  Occasionally, when you ask someone what time it is, they will tell you it is 4 when it is ten, or that it is twelve when it is six, and I’ll do the same when I’m talking about time in Luganda.  This is because in Uganda, they talk about time very differently than we do in English.  They use the same clock, but 7:00 is called 1:00 here, because that is the time when most people start their days.  Then the time just progresses from there.  It kind of makes sense when you think about it, but it’s very confusing.

The last translation difficulty is not something I run into a lot, but is worth noting.  The Luganda word “okujagala” means “to like,” “to love,” and “to want.”  I guess it’s similar to Spanish, but it’s somehow more confusing here.  If you think about it, “I like,” “I love,” and “I want” are all extremely different statements, and there is no way to really tell them apart, especially with my limited Luganda vocabulary.

I am sure that there are more of these, but these were the best ones that I’ve recorded over time.  Also, there would probably be more if this were not such a heavily English-speaking country.  Anyway, that’s about all for now. Back to the paper. Hope all is well there! ~CMK

5 thoughts on “Lugandlish

  1. The language stuff is really fun! I’m glad you enjoyed playing with it. I’m counting the days until I get to actually give you a hug and visit with you. I will be in Colorado almost as soon as you will. I’ll be staying at Tommy and Ellen’s from May 19th until I come your way on the 25th and I will stay with you all until I fly home on June 2nd. I think your Mom will be incredibly busy so I think you and I will have no trouble spending some time together. Meanwhile enjoy your winding down time there and I know you will be swapping e-mails with lots of new friends before you all head home. Take care. Love, Granny Kathy

  2. Thanks for the fun read, Christina (or rather CHRIStine). 🙂

    Hard to believe that you’ll be home in two and a half weeks.

    Take care.


  3. “Apoyo” for writing such a fascinating account of your travels; the linguistic notes were really interesting. And after reading about the water situation in a previous blog entry, I’m thanking my lucky stars every time I take a hot shower! We Americans are, for the most part, truly blessed with access to all sorts of resources we tend to take for granted.
    Best of luck with your paper.

  4. That time one is lame, and doesn’t make sense in any way. Why aren’t all the clocks in Uganda just set back six hours? Then there’s no problem. Another potential solution: wear a watch. Also, if you start using the word “somehow” to mean “sort of” anywhere within my vicinity, I’ll be forced to correct you. I will not allow that. 😛 On a related note, “awhile” is an adverb meaning “for a time,” so “for awhile” is redundant. I’d also like to say that I find your concept of the number three intriguing. Behold: “grouped into three categories: one for mannerisms/things that are just unique to Ugandan English and one for things that translate in an amusing way.” Hahaha. However, you made up for that with your correct use of the subjunctive mood (“if this were”) which is all kinds of super cool. It’s sad to see the subjunctive (at least the conditional or future subjunctive) dying off, but it’s good to know there are people like you out there using it and keeping it alive!

    P.S. Are you sure there were 86 speed bumps and it wasn’t just a crappy road?

    1. Haha. Thanks for picking up on that, Chad! I shall correct that “three category” thing now. (There were originally three but I cut it down to two and missed that in my proofreading. Oops!) And yes, I am positive about the speed bumps. Such a ridiculous number, but definitely speed bumps!

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