Ugandan English: Wikis


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Ugandan English, the English spoken in Uganda, like that spoken elsewhere, has developed a strong local flavour. Though standard British English is widely considered to be the correct form of the language in Uganda, most Ugandans who speak English have had little contact with native British speakers.

The speech patterns of Ugandan languages strongly influence spoken English. Uganda has a large variety of indigenous languages, and someone familiar with Uganda will readily identify the native language of a person speaking English. Ugandan speakers will alter foreign words to make them sound more euphonic.

The Bantu languages spoken in southern Uganda tend not to have consonants sounded alone without a vowel in the syllable. Indeed, the Luganda word for consonant is "silent letter". Thus the letters l and d in Alfred (/ˈælfrɛd/) will be given sound by the addition of /i/, making the pronunciation of the word /ˈalifuredi/

Luganda never has /r/ starting a word; it only appears following the letters /e/ and /i/ within a word. The /l/ sound, conversely, cannot follow these sounds. Thus the word railway gets its /r/ and its /l/ substituted, giving /lirwe/.

Luganda does not permit the sequence /kju/; any occurrence of this sound becomes /tʃu/. Thus cute is pronounced /tʃut/.

The initial /r/ is dysphonic to the Luganda speaker but is perfectly natural to the speaker of Runyankole and Rukiga, which have few instances of the /l/ sound. Additionally, /s/ in Runyankole and Rukiga is more often heard as /ʃ/.

The combination of the above three rules will transform calcium into /karuʃim/. British chemistry teachers in Uganda were mystified by such pronunciations. A Ugandan hearing it not only understands the word, he accurately identifies the speaker’s province of origin.


Idiosyncratic usage

Some English words have a peculiar meaning widely understood within Uganda but mystifying to foreigners. The origin of these usages may be obscure. The best known example is probably to extend which in Uganda means move over on a seat to make room for someone else. Other words used include "pop" and is used to replace words like bring and come, for example danny pop that bottle here or heno pop to my house.

Sometimes the usage has a traceable origin. A basement is called a godown, though the usual meaning (a warehouse) is also known in Uganda, and a tow truck is a breakdown.

A guilty conscience becomes an adjective: a person is said to be guilty conscious. This has been seen written in a judgement by a High Court Judge.

Farming is often referred to as digging, and fields under cultivation, even large ones, are usually referred to as gardens.

When giving directions, the following expressions are common: to slope stands for driving in a particular direction (not necessarily downhill); to branch stands for turning left or right.

When money is spent extravagantly on outings, shopping, recreations and the like, Ugandans are said to be "eating money"." This is also a common phrase in reference to embezzlement, corruption, or misappropriation of funds, for example: The Minister ate the money or He was fired from his job because he ate money. This also applies to living a lavish or abundant lifestyle hence the phrase "you are eating money" which commonly means one is successful and doing well.

The word vernacular, rarely used in ordinary conversation in most of the English speaking world, is common in Uganda, used to mean local language.

A taxi is a car or van used like a bus, carrying many persons along a fixed route. A taxi taking one passenger at a time on a negotiable route is referred to as a special hire. A motorbike or bicycle used for the same purpose is a bodaboda. The term originated at the Uganda–Kenya border crossing at Busia, where a kilometer separates the downtown area and the border post on the Ugandan side. Travellers dropped off at the bus/taxi station by buses or taxis or those coming to Uganda from the Kenya side were ferried over this distance by enterprising cyclists, who would attract business by calling border, border.

A building labeled hotel in a small town is likely to be a restaurant.

A practitioner of witchcraft is referred to as a night dancer. The origin is unclear, and is not a direct translation from a Ugandan language. A practitioner of witchcraft in Uganda is referred to as a Witch-doctor, though this term is often also used to refer to practitioners of local medicines (e.g. herbal medicines.) "Nightdancer", however, refers to a person who has been possessed by a spirit causing him to dance naked in the wee hours of the night and very often to defecate and smear human excrement on people's door posts. This can be found country-wide regardless of tribal origin. It eventually became synonymous with witch-doctors as they were usually possessed by these spirits.

Foreign currency is forex, and bureaux de change are forex bureaux.

Children whose fathers are brothers are considered brothers and sisters in most African societies. The English word cousin conflates them with the children of a maternal uncle or those of aunts, who in a patrilineal society belong to a different clan. Thus the terms cousin brother or cousin sister, used to identify the close cousins

The title Captain is applied to all pilots, not just those in command of a plane.

Pilot is often used to refer to the driver of a bus, (minivan) taxi or "special hire".

Mobile phone services are prepaid. A person finding himself with inadequate prepaid time to make a call will ring up the intended recipient of the call and hang up immediately. The receiver of the call, hearing the phone ring once and seeing the number, understands himself to have been beeped. The understood message is I wish to talk to you at your expense.

The Broadway play The Vagina Monologues had a brief but notorious appearance on the Ugandan stage before being banned by government censors. The brouhaha led to the entry of the word monologue into Ugandan English as a euphemism for vagina. The newspaper Red Pepper popularized the use of the word kandahar for vagina, and whopper for penis.

The verb to put on is often substituted for to dress, to be dressed or to wear. One may hear remarks such as that lady is rich, don't you see how she is putting on and the police are looking for a man putting on a red shirt.

The adjective whole is used to emphasize disapproval of conduct unbecoming a person's rank or station. Examples: "How can a whole Minister go to that cheap nightclub" or "How can a whole headmaster dress so badly". The usage is a direct translation from several Ugandan languages.

The word lost is used to mean that you haven't seen the person in a long time. One would say eeeh but you are lost".

The word fake can be used to chastise a person about something. So for example if one's friend went on an exciting evening out without inviting the other friend, you might hear the latter complain saying eeh you man/woman/girl/boy you are fake!

In the English used in Karamoja, we could call it Karimojong English, to enjoy can be used as "to be married to", as in the sentence, "I used to enjoy Narot but now [since the divorce] I am enjoying Nakoto"

Borrowed terms and borrowed grammar

English has been absorbing foreign words for centuries, in Uganda it is still at it. Usually words are inserted into English because the English equivalent just doesn’t convey the sense the Ugandan speaker wishes to convey.

To a man the term “brother in law” applies to both a wife’s brother and a wife’s sister’s husband. A man’s relationship with these two entails two quite different sets of obligations and norms in Ugandan society. Thus Ugandan speakers will often use the Luganda muko (wife’s brother) and musangi (literally “one you met” meaning you met at the girls’ home while wooing them) to make the distinction.

Sometimes only a prefix is borrowed. In Luganda the prefix ka- before a noun denotes smallness. A Member of Parliament, referring to a five-foot tall Finance Minister, said in a debate “the ka-man is innocent”.

"ka-child" and "ka-thing" are also common. "ka-timba", however (in construction of buildings) refers to a thin piece of steel (re-bar), rather than the wood which one might expect.

'Banking institutions when presented with a dishounured check are said to bounce it, Ugandans have adopted this phrase to refer to the inability to meet with intended person goal or appointment, "I came to your place and bounced." ' Ugandans will frequently combine two sentences into one using the word and, for example a barber will say sit down and I cut your hair or a messenger they told me to come and you give me the package”. The usage makes sense in most Ugandan languages but, interestingly, in these languages the word and is implied, not stated.

The Luganda conjunction nti is often slipped into English sentences instead of that. Thus one will hear a quotation like the Minister said nti corruption will not be tolerated. If the speaker is skeptical he will use mbu instead of nti. The Minister said mbu corruption will not be tolerated implies that it’s just talk; business will go on as usual.

In some Ugandan languages the same verb can be used express thanks, congratulations and appreciation of a job well done. It is normal for an African working in his own garden to be thanked for his work by a passing stranger. So if you buy a new car in Uganda, or win a race, do not be surprised to find yourself being thanked. The expression well done' is extrapolated to specific actions. Examples include well fought to soldiers on the winning side after a war; well bought to someone with a new car or house and even well put on to a well-dressed person. See above for the interchangeability of to 'dress, to wear and to put on.

The personal pronoun is usually added to imperative sentences. thus "Go to Entebbe" or "Please go to Entebbe" will become you go to Entebbe; please come here becomes You come.

Ugandans often use the alternative of half luganda and half English words. for going to change into a dress..." becomes i'm going to ku-changi-nga in other cases, they add 'ing' at the end of a luganda word thus a young girl can say "that gentleman was kwaana-ring mean "the gentleman was chatting me up.


Traditional Ugandan proverbs, often clumsily translated, are often heard. A popular non-traditional one is a justification of official corruption, it goes man eateth where he worketh”.


It is interesting how standard English spelling rules are often flouted even in official publications. For example the word "dining" is frequently spelt "dinning" which to a native English speaker would be pronounced with a "short" "i", as if it refers to making a noise rather than referring to the room in which eating takes place. Another frequent change is the confusion of "u" and "a". An example would be the use of "batter" for "butter" (what is spread on the bread).

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