Thursday, 5 March 2009

A Modern Tower of Babel

It has been said that the English and Americans are peoples divided by a common language. I think that can be said of any of the English-speaking peoples. Here at Mwandi there are various varieties of English in everyday use, the most common being naturally Zambian-English.
Other common dialects heard are Australian, Scots, English-English and U.S. English (Yankee & Southern).

It is not just pronunciation that presents difficulties as you would expect but vocabulary is problematic too…. In Zambian English there are many words that have come from the 7 major indigenous languages. These are common everyday words used by everyone. The most common being chitenge (a cotton wrap) and inshima (maize-meal thick porridge). Another lovely onomatopoetic word is patapatas (flip-flops). The names of trees, plants, birds and animals are another source of these. Dambo is a geographical expression. From South African English come takkies (sandshoes) and robots (traffic lights). Zambian neologisms include to foot (walk) and moveous (elusive and up to no good). And from the mines come malegeni (inner-tube rubber used to repair all manner of things) and b*ggered. The last term for many English speakers causes your jaw to drop on first hearing it, but is used by many Zambians in fairly formal contexts.

So what has brought us to musing over language this week? Well, two amusing misunderstandings really. Fiona, our Australian daughter-in-law living in Zambia, had borrowed some cake-tins to bake a cake for a farewell tea for an Australian colleague. She forgot to bring the tins over to wash them, and return them, so she asked Beauty, her PA, if she would please go to her kitchen and bring the cake-tins over to be washed. Fiona did say that Beauty had looked at her in a puzzled fashion, but said nothing and had apparently gone to do as she was asked. Fiona arrived home in the evening to find bare windows in the kitchen and sitting-room and the still unwashed cake-tins! The Australian pronunciation of cake-tins to the Zambian ear sounds like curtains! The neatly-laundered items were delivered the next day.

At sundown on Monday, Kelvin came in and asked us if we wanted him to lock up our beds. We were unsure which beds he meant, our own or the hospitals, and why did they need to be locked up? After further questions and answers that clouded the matter more, the penny finally dropped. Ah, our birds - the geese and ducks were what Kelvin meant! There is a rather large variation between the Scottish and Zambian English pronunciations of birds, but thankfully the written form of Standard English is fairly homogeneous and stable. (See below.)

Chitenge: a cotton wrap
Takkies: sandshoes (cf. Scots gutties)
Inshima: maize-meal thick porridge
To foot: to walk
Patapatas: flipflops
Moveous: elusive & up to no good (cf. Scots sleekit)
Dambo: a wet marsh area
B*ggered: in need of repair
Malegeni: inner-tube rubber used to repair all manner of things.
Robots: traffic lights

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