Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15, 2010 - Just the Other Day...

After arriving in Kenya, we quickly noticed the different ways that Kenyans speak English. They have some language patterns and sayings that are really foreign to me, even though they are speaking my native language (as their 2nd or 3rd language, usually). We often hear old-fashioned British vocabulary and sayings that, from what we can tell, British people don't actually still say, along with what seem like "strange" uses of specific phrases and translations from Kiswahili that can make a native-English speaker feel more than a bit confused. I'm not writing this as a criticism, just a humorous observation...after all, when I try to speak Kiswahili, or better yet Danish, I am used to laughter or confusion on the other end.

Kristoffer and I often talk about this "Kenyan English", as we call it, particularly because we often (I shudder, but it is true) catch ourselves saying some really bizarre things! Here are just a few classic examples:
  • "Pick it (or you/him/her/me)" instead of "pick it up": "Charles will pick you at the main gate." or "Please pick the package and deliver it to..."
  • Someone says hello to you and you respond, "Fine". Why? Because in Kiswahili you will say "Jambo, habari" which pretty much means "Hello, How are you?" and someone responds, "Mzuri", which basically means "fine". Kenyans translate this to English so if someone says "Hello", the "how are you" is assumed and they will respond "fine" even when you didn't actually ask. It took me at least 18 months to not be annoyed by this and I have since done it myself at least three times.
  • The word "alight", which means to come down/settle/get off of/dismount. I have never heard an American use this word and have never actually heard a British person use it, but it must have been used a lot by British here during colonialism. Charles will often say to me when arriving somewhere, "Will you alight here or should I drop you somewhere else?"
  • "Just the other day..." When a Kenyan says this phrase it could mean yesterday, last week, last month, 10 years ago, or before independence. Literally. Kristoffer had a conversation with a colleague during which he was talking about the early 80s when President Moi was in power and he actually said, "Just the other day, the president blah blah blah..." And, by the way, they don't say this in a nostalgic manner, such as "It seems like just the other day that Grace was a tiny baby." Once, Charles told me, "Just the other day we had a dog but it died and we didn't get a new one." And then I found out that was a few years ago!
  • "Isn't it." Said more as a statement than a question. After everything. It seems to be used to verify that something is true or when you want someone to acknowledge/agree, but it sounds horrible to a native English speaker's ears.
This meeting will be called to order. Isn't it.
I'm going to play squash this evening. Isn't it.
Grace doesn't like to sleep in the morning. Isn't it.
We should think about where we want to go for lunch. Isn't it.
I hate when I catch myself speaking Kenyan English. Isn't it.

The thing I wonder about most is will these "Kenyan English"-isms stay with us when we don't live here anymore?! Maybe "just the other day" will sneak up on me every now or I will occasionally drop an "Isn't it". In the same way I sometimes say "papah" instead of "paper" and am reminded of growing up outside of Boston and with my mother's strong accent, it will be proof to the world and to myself that indeed I have lived here and I have known this place.



Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

This was great! I love the way non native english speakers sometimes translate their words into ours. I just had to comment to tell you that I was in India in December and noticed the same "isn't it" phrase. It was one of my favorite things!

Hope all is well is Nairobi!

Michelle (Starin) said...

Hello Kenya, this is beijing calling! (danes will recognize the phrase from the eurovision contest, anyway...) I thought we'd chip in with a couple of our similar experiences abroad. Appart from the many words that are simply hard for a chinese to pronounce (like ugilic=acrylic, luluminum=aluminium, legular=regular and many others), we have more than once been told that a certain thing was liquid, when they ment limited (try guessing that). I've had mails containing sentences like quote: "questions about creating intercourse account code", "heaven and earth may move", "retail has to palaver with emporium". We've grown to love all those web based translating programmes. Otherwise when speaking to the average chinese it's best to cut out all extra words; e.g could you please warm this= make hot! and When you give to me? The scary thing is that you at one point actually start understanding the meaning of their strange sentences....
Take care, see you all this summer

M&E said...

oh, and a last one: When chinese speak about someone, forget about he or she, they can mix that several times in a single sentece, and since names like: Elves, Lakin, Winter and Water aren't very gender specific, it's sometimes a bit hard to determine if it is a man or a woman you're talking about...

Anonymous said...

After using a language for quite sometime it evolves and becomes native to the people who use it and domesticate it to fit their envoroment.That is how american english or south african english evolved into what it is now,different from british english.English vocabulary has increased five times in the last 500years hence new ways of saying things come up.Although legally,only British standard english is acceptable in schools,courts,parliament etc.Most kids born in the cities are only exposed to english as their first language and learn the others by themselves.Very few Kenyan kids can construct a perfect sentence in Kiswahili or native languages, so thats why all the mixing comes up since most a trilingual from birth