Friday, September 18, 2009

When a dictionary doesn't help - language across cultures


Living in a foreign country provides so many opportunities to look at language – specifically the language you take for granted as your own – in my case English – and look critically at how it is taken for granted as universally understood.

The truth is that language is more of a cultural and societal construct than we realize.

Last night I got a call from one of my Ghanaian colleagues:

Me: Hello?

GC: Hello

Me: Yes, hello?

GC: Good evening

Me: Good evening
(This exact banter comprises the beginning of every telephone conversation in Ghana – except if it’s morning, then there is the good morning greeting…_If you are very unlucky, the hello, hello, hello can go back and forth up to 10 times. I’m not kidding)

GC: Holli, please can you tell me, what is a jackass?

Me: (amused) What?! A jackass is like an idiot, why?

GC: OH! That is serious then! Well I was reading on the Internet that President Obama called Kanye West that word.

Me: Well it’s true. He is a jackass. But Obama did not say that officially! It was ‘off the record’

GC: Off the what?

Me: Nevermind. Is that all? Don’t you guys know the word jackass?

GC: No not at all. Is it anything like baloney?
(This refers to a conversation we had two years ago when George Bush visited Ghana and in his speech said that the rumors that the US wanted to build a military base in Ghana was ‘a bunch of baloney’. This was totally lost on most of Ghana…)

Me: (Laughing) No! Not like baloney…

GC: Also, what does he mean when he says ‘cut the President some slack’?

Me: Oh, well he just means to give him a break, not be so hard on him…

GC: Wow. Americans have some funny English!

Perhaps they do… It’s just that phrases we know seem so normal, so obvious…

When I hung up I decided to write a little list of phrases that are common in Ghana in English, that I found bizarre when I arrived:

1. 'We know ourselves' – meaning we know each other

2. 'We’ll advise ourselves' – meaning we’ll reconsider or think twice

3. 'That girl is tough' – meaning she is chubby or big

4. 'I’m getting bored' – meaning getting annoyed

5. 'Please, I’ll alight here' – used in a vehicle, meaning I’ll get off/out here

6. 'I’m going to buy provisions' – nice fancy old colonial word for groceries

7. 'Bend right or pass right or curve right or branch right' - when giving directions it means simply to go right

8. 'I had a blast last night' - refers to a tire blow-out on a car, NOT a fun time!

9. 'He is a 'blow-man' - this refers to a fighter - used alot when identifying characters in action movies

10. 'What's for chop? What did you chop?' - referring to food - what's for supper, what did you eat?

Can anyone else give me some examples of how English is a whole different thing, depending on the where and when??
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50 comments:

Trish said...

One of my favorite (or least favorite depending on the context) is I am coming, usually meaning that the person has not yet left. As a Canadian I always take it to mean that the person is almost there.

Shelley said...

I've been following your blog and this one really hit home for me! I adopted two lovely daughters from Ghana a little over a year ago. They were 14 and 9 when the came to America. They are still trying to figure out our english. :) I have been to Ghana 3 times this year, so had the opportunity to hear some of what you wrote about. I love Ghana. Beautiful country, beautiful people. I enjoy reading your blog.

Shelley said...

I forgot my example. My girls still say "I am looking for my this thing"....my this thing can mean anything. Or "Mom, have you seen my this thing?"
(me) What thing? (them) My this thing! (me) What does the thing look like? :)and on an and on....
Also, I noticed saying goodbye in Ghana is more than just bye. It's good bye...(them) bye byeeeeee (me) bye (them ( byeeeeee). :) I love it.

The pale observer said...

Hey Shelley - yes! Everything is a dis ting!!!!

I just remembered one - "I came to meet your absense" - meaning you weren't there when I visited...

I actually just found a great little book called A North American's Guide to Ghana English - which was written by a Canadian in 1998 (which was a year after I arrived in Ghana) and besides being light-hearted and funny - was also amazingly helpful.

Too bad you didn't get a copy to take home!!

Anonymous said...

Ha ha. Ghanaian english.

I know for a fact that numbers 4 and 10 are words that are common in the broken english that people speak.

Wordacious said...

Very interesting post. I love hearing about different dialects and I have written about the Yooper dialect on my blog.

Tootie said...

I loved this post! Thanks for your visit to my blog.

The pale observer said...

Hey Tootie - I became a follower! :)

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Being an English teacher, I loved this. Reminds me of Jamaican & Indian English.

AV

thatgirlblogs said...

way to many to mention, I'm sure -- loved this, and I'm following you, too ;)

Scarlet said...

I love languages and idioms and all that good stuff, so I really appreciate this post...and you know I'll be asking my husband "what did you chop?" when he whips up breakfast tomorrow! I love that one!

Faf said...

"I will buy this thing"

as shelley has already explained, this thing can stand for anything.

In this case, "I will buy" mean I want to buy.

Rather like how you might say "Can I have some [blah]"

Margo said...

I think that language differences are usually at least charming and sometimes hysterical. One example - we had some close Dutch friends when we lived in Holland and one of the guys used the f-word like crazy. We accepted it for what is was, but then when he started using it in front of my mother when she came to visit, we realized he didn't quite understand how "bad" of a word it was. It was funny coming from such a sophisticate... my mom and I still laugh about it sometimes :)

Debbie said...

My kids don't even understand me if when I say a few things that are specific to the area where I grew up. I can only imagine how hard it is in another country.

Eternally Distracted said...

I LOVE being lost in translation ... I asked my partner last night if she had dyed her hair because it looked redder ... She looked confused, looked at her hair and said 'I didn't kill it' .... :)

The pale observer said...

@AV - yes, the pidgin that is spoken here and in Nigeria is very much like Jamaican patois (which I can speak, but that is a story from an earlier lifetime!)

@thatgirl - thanks for following :)

@Scarlet - my favourite Ghanaian saying is"Chop time no friend" - meaning when it's time to eat you don't have friends - just think of yourself and your tummy!

@Faf & Shell - Dis ting!!!! One of my faves if you can't remember what the name is of the thing you are looking for!

@Margo - funny! Same thing happened to me in reverse. I was using the word silly alot, not realising that in Ghana it's a serious insult... needless to say, someone finally let me know and I don't say it anymore!

@Debbie - same thing happens between my mom and us!! And yes, across cultures it's hundred fold!

@Eternally - do tell - why did your wife think you meant killed??? :)

Dutch donut girl said...

I don't have examples but I did love this post.

hello
hello
hello
hello

It's sounds like my phone conversations with my mother :)

Btw, thank you for stopping by my blog, hope to see more of you!

The pale observer said...

Hi Donut girl! The hello back and forth thing does get annoying!

Good to be linked! :)

Kajsa Hallberg Adu said...

Ok, different Ghanaian English (could be a blog on its own):

"mineral" - soft drink

"rubber bag" - plastic bag

"piuuure waata'", "sachet", Voltic - cold potable water (if you say it any other way youäll go thirsty. E.g. ME: Do you have water? BARTENDER: No.)

"as for you..." - meaning anything from "you are baaad" to "let me think about what you just said"

"Chaley" - any person that you are taking to as in, "Chaley, I'll call you later"

"small" - a little bit. Example "wait small" or "give me rice, small"

"Too known" - a busy body thinking (s)he knows everything.

Robynn's Ravings said...

I can't offer much but I sure enjoyed what you served here. That sentence would probably make no sense to a Ghanian I suddenly realize! lol

The pale observer said...

Kajsa!!! Those are all so perfect. I hear them every day. You got Ghana down pat!!!

Chalee - wait small small - do you want mieral or piiure watah in a rubbah? :)

Maybe this does deserve it's own post!

9uy said...

Looking forward for your guestblog...

Nevine said...

Holli, thank you for coming by my blog and posting a comment. I really appreciate that, especially because it allowed me to find out about you. I've decided to follow your blog - VERY interesting! I'll be back...

The pale observer said...

Hey Guy - I'm still thinking of the best topic... stay tuned! :)

Nevine - thanks!! It's mutual.

corvedacosta said...

Holli
In Jamaica good means bad and bad means good.
If someone tells you - you're bad = means you are good.

It is funny though that you found those in Ghana's culture.

Pretty cool.

The pale observer said...

Hi Corve - thanks for visiting!! You'd be surprised at the similarities in language and food and other cultural idioms between west Africa and the Caribbean!

If you heard people speaking pidgin here, you'd think it was a familiar yet strange version of patois!

The pale observer said...

Hi Corve - thanks for visiting!! You'd be surprised at the similarities in language and food and other cultural idioms between west Africa and the Caribbean!

If you heard people speaking pidgin here, you'd think it was a familiar yet strange version of patois!

Darcy said...

Hahaha, hilarious! i love the phone conversations--it's stuff like that you never really think of until you get a phone call like that!
I had boyfriend in college from Spain and one thing we always noticed was if he would tell me a joke that his Spanish colleagues would think was so funny, to me and our american friends, we didn't get it. like the humor was way different; he didn't get many our jokes either really. He also considered american sarcasm just plain mean.
do you run into humor differences in ghana too?

blunt edges said...

omg...i have had thousands of discussions with my friends about how we see n hear funny phrases but i can't recollect even one now!!! sigh!

nos. 8 and 9 were awesome...would have never guessed that! :D:D:D

Betty Manousos:cutand-dry.blogspot.com said...

So interesting post and hearing different dialects.Your blog is absolutely impressive.!Thanks for passing by and following.
I'm following you.

The pale observer said...

@Darcy - thanks for the comment - yes humour is DEFINITELY one of those cultural things that does not translate easily at all! It happens all the time here that Ghanaians will be laughing so hard and when they explain to me what's so funny I stand there blank faced...

Hey Blunt - thanks for the comment. I come across these sayings all the time but it was difficult to think of them all when I sat down to write! I love numbers 8 and 9 too!!

Betty! Thanks for visiting. You are welcome anytime to this little corner of the blogosphere :)

Mari said...

Thanks for stopping by my photo blog! I love your blog, from the header to what you write.
This post is so true. My son just spent a year in South Korea and although I can't remember any specifics, he had a lot of funny language things happen too.

Caio Fernandes said...

this post is realy good , i am fron Brazil .. some mistakes are universal !!!
your whole blog is great !
thank you for to have droped by !!
see you !!

The pale observer said...

Hi Mari and Caio - I think language misunderstandings are something we can all relate to at sometime or another. Some are just funny - especially in retrospect!!

Thanks for visiting - please follow! :) Will promise to try and be interesting :)

Solvang Sherrie said...

My father is from Jamaica and I remember as a teenager getting annoyed when Jamaican women would tell me I was looking well, because from them, it meant I was packing on the pounds. It's their euphemism for a fat girl :(

Unknown Mami said...

I love this kind of stuff because it happens within my family so much. It can be very amusing at times.

The pale observer said...

@Sherrie - I get those exact same comments in Ghana when I get back from holidays. I genuinely believe though that people who use that term are sincere and that they like heavy over thin...I think it's cultural.

@Mami - thanks. Yes it's even more amazing when it happens within one family! :)

J. said...

It's been many years since I was last in Ghana... But a few quotable language-slippage moments from other places:

Favorite question (from Vietnam): "Where are you come?"

Favorite grumble (from Sri Lanka): "We're around the bush beating all day long..."

Best compliment received (in Cambodia, from someone who wished he had as much hair on his arm as I have on mine): "ohhhh... I very like your public hair!"

Most teach-able moment (in Jordan): "Mr... what is mean, 'my hump my hump my hump'?"

Best signage (carefully printed, hanging in a restroom in Pakistan): "Do not piss on the seat. It is unethical."

Most difficult to understand statement (from a public health official in India): "It is better to drink tea first. That way there will be no storm."

Most heartwarming (after harrowing motorcycle moment in Thailand): "I'm so pleased you're not dead!"

The pale observer said...

Excellent examples J! How do you remember them all? Did you record them at the time on all your travels??

Thanks for visiting and of course these contributions!

I just remembered another one I like in Ghana "Are you pulling my legs?"
It's amazing how pluralizing a well known phrase can change it so much!!!

Toetsiekedoetsie said...

Then there is the term "spoilt" used for ANYTHING that is broken. Even a broken TV is referred to as being spoilt.

The pale observer said...

Yes!! That's one of my favourites. Sometimes when my sales team are late to work they tell me that 'the car spoilt on the way'.

Thanks for putting that one out there.

enyonam said...

This is so true.. I'm so guilty when it comes to points 2 and 5. Its not wrong English but, like you said there are cultural differences.

I love your blog and would be glad if you visit my and leave some of your wisdom behind.
http:enyos-place.blogspot.com.

enyonam said...

This is so true.. I'm so guilty when it comes to points 2 and 5. Its not wrong English but, like you said there are cultural differences.

I love your blog and would be glad if you visit my and leave some of your wisdom behind.
http:enyos-place.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

It is extremely interesting for me to read this article. Thank you for it. I like such themes and anything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more on that blog soon.

The pale observer said...

Hi Anon - thanks for the comment. You are welcome back any time :)

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Anonymous said...

You know what, try GSM jammer to jam all secret transmitters in your home or at work.

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A Touch of Dutch said...

Another great blog entry! I really got a kick out of this one ;-) I have had some similar experiences here in the Netherlands, but the list is too long to share at the moment. Perhaps I'll write a blog entry about this of my own soon!

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