Monday, December 5, 2011

How do you say...?

I can’t believe I’ve been here 4 months already! So, I have spent the last 4 months becoming fluent in… Ugandan English. And I thought I would share a couple of these gems with you, that those in our house often laugh about.

The first one which I have to comment on is the use of the mm’s and eh’s that get used. “Mmm” can be used in response to ANYTHING. It can mean yes, no, maybe, somehow (see below), I don’t know, I agree, I’m looking, I’m listening, I can’t believe that!, I’m sorry, and the list goes on. I think it’s funny how many parents try to break their kids of the habit of using grunts/mm’s in America, in relation to the fact that it is the most common sound/word used here.

Another thing about the way of talking is that you HAVE to greet anyone you know on the street, otherwise you are considered really rude. And greeting consists of this conversation (either held in Lusoga or English) But my favorite part of this is the fact that you absolutely do not have to remember almost anything about the other person, other than that you know him or her (even sometimes this is not necessary) because you don’t EVER use specifics. Note the uses of there, here, and they.

“Good morning! How was the night?”
“The night was fair. How was the night?”
“The night was good. How is there?”
“There is somehow. How is here?”
“Here is ok. How are they?”
“They are good. Well done.”
“Thank you. Also well done.”
 And then sometimes
Then you leave.

The lack of specifics can also come in really high usefulness when it comes to conversations with strangers who you don’t really want to know where you live, because a common question to ask is “where do you live?” Luckily, you can respond to this question by “Ah, just that side,” waving vaguely with your hand.

Also, any time a word ends with a hard sound or an s, they will add a “ee” sound to the end of the word. What becomes whatee, bright becomes brightee, beans become beansee, you get the idea.

“Somehow”—this is used so often that I think I have entirely forgotten how to use it appropriately in American English. In Uganda refers to anything pretty much which is neither good nor bad. “How did the test go?” “Somehow” “How are you feeling?” “Somehow”

“By the way” – I still haven’t entirely mastered how this one is used. But it’s definitely not used in the sense that “by the way” is usually used. I think it just means, I’m adding on to what you’re already saying. Most recent example of this: Me: “It’s hot today!” A teacher: “By the way, it IS hot today!” Are you as confused as I am?

Also, in conversation, they LOVE repeating what you’ve just said, particularly in speaking Lusoga. One of my most common phrases is “I’m learning Lusoga slowly by slowly” to which EVERYONE responds, looking at me, “Ah, she’s learning Lusoga, slowly by slowly.” At least I always know I’m heard!

“But” – as far as I can tell, this is kind of used in the same sense that Americans use “by the way”… but in terms of something that the other person wants you to do/ thinks you should do. You will be talking about something entirely different, and then they’ll say, “but should you board this taxi now?” or something along those lines.

“Smart” – well dressed. Has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence.

“Sure” – This does not mean yes. If I said this, people would not think I was agreeing with them. Found this one out the frustrating way. Instead, sure kinda means “really?” and is often used like this. “You are looking smart today!” “Sure!” to which you have to respond “Yes! Absolutely!”

“Sorry!” – used with the same intonation for anything from you dropped your waterbottle to someone in the family passing away.

“Be serious” – means act like an adult. Is a really good phrase to use to get the kids to stop horsing around in class.

“Short call” and “Long call” –they both mean using the bathroom, I’ll let you figure out what means what.

“He/she” – used interchangeably. Doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, you could get either descriptor. This makes stories incredibly confusing sometimes, but proves very useful in some cases because all the children here shave their heads and sometimes it’s really difficult to tell…

“We are understanding, but we are not hearing” – this one always makes me laugh, because it just doesn’t make sense. It just means they need you to repeat, because they have no idea what I just said.

“Tomorrow” – means tomorrow, but can also mean the day after tomorrow, two days after tomorrow, three days after tomorrow, a year after tomorrow, ten years from now, AND (this is the fun part) yesterday. Guess that explains a lot more about the African concept of time.

And my personal favorite, “what what” which basically means "etc". "We plant beans, casava, matoke bananas, sweet bananas, greens, sweet pepper, what what" In our house, we try to use this one as much as possible.

I know there are more, I just can’t think of them right now, so you can be assured I will add them as time goes on. (Tomorrow haha) But as for right now, I hope you are all enjoying your holiday season! I have to say, it’s very strange, there have been a few advertisements for Christmas, but I’ve only seen them in Kampala. Today in Jinja was the first time I’ve heard Christmas music coming from anywhere but Damian’s room, and I saw fake Christmas trees. This whole commercialization thing you all are dealing with in the US? Not so much here. It’s kinda nice. Also kinda nice because let’s face it, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas time when I’m putting on sunscreen every day and wearing skirts and t-shirts… and still sweating. Ironic song: “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas.”

Hope you all are doing well, and enjoying the Christmas cheer!

Sending love and prayers from Uganda.


  1. Oh my gosh you've learned so much! I love this list!

  2. 'there is somehow...what what?'
    does that mean 'it is very different in Uganda
    and I am hearing but not understanding?'
    You are a master translator, Anna! Looking
    forward to decoding with you 'tomorrow'! love mom