Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lost In Translation

A friend asked the other day, are you having any language difficulties?

He was joking. At least, I think he was.

Ugandans, growing up in an ex-British Protectorate, speak very good English. They also speak among them a multitude of different tribal languages, including the most popular, Lugandan. But that's only spoken by about 17% of the population so English has become a pretty universal tongue round here.

But having said that, the little differences are the ones we notice most. As I wince inwardly at the American pronounciations of Aluminium, or get easily riled by an over-zealous software spell checker underling words like favourite and odorous just because I've kept the 'u' in them, so I strain against a few idiosyncratic Ugandanisms under the pretext of the English language.

People don't pick up their kids from school here. They pick them from school. Weirdly, the verb 'pick' also seems to be used when talking about someone dying unexpectedly. As if some heavenly force had 'picked' one from life.

And a couple of times I've had to ask the staff to describe what they mean when asking me for something from the shops. Our head of housekeeping came up to me this morning and asked me if I could buy them a "forcing cap". I laughed and asked her to explain what she meant. She demonstrated visually as she described unblocking a loo or a sink.

Aaah, you mean a plunger I thought.

Except I didn't quite think that because at that precise point in time, thrown off by the abstract description of the object, I could not rightly remember what we English actually called those long handled rubber vacuum seal thingummies.

Give me a few more weeks and I'll be speaking pidgin.

Finally, one language barrier which got a Ugandan quite angry was when I was in the Post Office to get a new stock of postage stamps for the bar to sell punters for their postcards. The denominations I wanted were 1200 shilling stamps - enough for a postcard to Europe.

Hello, can I have one hundred twelve hundred shilling stamps please said I.

The lady behind the counter stared at me in disbelief.

Madame, please say again what stamps you want

(I am forever shocked at being called Madame but find myself addressing other women of all ages here in the same way, as is the custom.)

Back in the Post Office, I thought my request for so many stamps was vexing her. I slowed down a little and repeated myself, trying not to over-articulate like some Brit in a Spanish beach bar.

One hundred of your twelve hundred shilling stamps please. Or fifty. Or whatever quantity you sell them in. We need them for our business.

The lady rose up behind the counter glass and puffed up her chest.

You mean one hundred One Thousand Two Hundred stamps she said sternly.
You must NOT say twelve hundred, Madame. When you say twelve we think you mean twelve thousand. You must say One Thousand Two Hundred.

Oops. I'd crossed the line in spoken number etiquette.

Despite twelve hundred being marginally less hassle in getting the syllables out, this is a country which counts in thousands.

Not hundreds like some low-denomination Western state.

So the burning issue is, how do Zimbabweans count? Here's a picture of someone holding a Fifty Million Zimbabwean note, back when that was unusual. Last week, I saw a picture of someone holding a Two Hundred And Fifty Million note.

No comments: