BOOK REVIEW: Unlocking the Ugandan version of English

Saturday December 13 2014

By Dennis D. Muhumuza

A Ugandan researcher and cultural critic has published a book on something that we have always laughed about in Uganda: the way we speak English.
Bernard Sabiiti spent four years figuring out the origin of Uglish (/you-glish/), the derisive term Ugandans use to refer to their weird variety of English.

This is not something common only among the uneducated, Mr Sabiiti says of Uganda’s own English. He writes that even some highly educated Ugandans cannot speak Standard English.

“Who of us has never used the phrase “you are lost?” While almost all Ugandans will understand what it means, which is that you have not seen someone in a while, most foreigners will have no idea what that means. The phrase is a direct translation of the local phrase. Most Uglishes like to “dirten”, which means to “make dirty”.

Others, however, are completely created out of the blue. For example, the origin of benching, which might mean the same thing as the American euphemism “making out” or pursuing a woman with carnal/romantic intentions, is not clear.

The book traces the evolution and history of such words and phrases, explains their meanings and gives reasons why Ugandans, when their level of comprehension is fully stretched to the limit, directly translate English words often with no regard to grammatical, semantic or syntactic nuance that is required. As a result, you end up with a phrase that makes no sense to the uninitiated.

For example, many Ugandans say, “Borrow me some money,” instead of “lend me…”; “Museveni has ‘won Besigye” to mean “Museveni has defeated Besigye, etc”.


The reason for this, the author observes, is because of our difficulty processing these linguistic phenomena when our thinking is steeped in indigenous language and cultural backgrounds. And this hampers our processing efforts.
Lack of regular reading of books or interface with English speakers also exacerbates the problem.

The book has a chapter on the history of the evolution and development of Uglish, and an extensive glossary of Uglish words that will blow you away. Oh, and there is a whole chapter full of pictures of signposts! Yes! Signs written in Uglish that will leave you in stitches.

The author, however, makes it clear that the book is not a laughing matter. He writes that the growth of Uglish is much more than the impact indigenous languages have had on English, or the creativity or lack thereof of a people struggling to learn a foreign language.

He attributes most of the factors for the growth of this variety of English to failing education standards, a poor reading culture and lack of opportunities to regularly communicate in English; issues that the government, parents, teachers, students, educationists and curricula developers need to be concerned about.
For some readers, especially Ugandans therefore, the book is to be taken very seriously as there is a lot to learn from it, even as you have some laugh while at it.