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: 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??