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Funny things (to me) about Tanzanian English

There is no ‘standard English’. Australian English is different from British English is different from Indian English. Tanzanian English has its own idiosyncrasies as well and here I offer some that strike me as funny. I hope these are offered in celebration of a unique culture rather than making fun. I often tell people that Swahili is a better language that English because it has predictable rules where English has lots of rules but almost as many exceptions!

At a birthday party, what do you give people? A gift, but say it ‘jift’. The soft ‘g’ is a mystery to many Tanzanians and its usage seems random.

Actually, you give a ‘gifti’ not a ‘gift’. Tanzanians love adding an ‘i’ onto the end of words, especially names. When we told people when we first got here that our son’s name was ‘Elliot’ (before we discovered that’s a completely stupid name for a boy in Tanzania), they immediately called him ‘Ellioti’.

Actually, it was more like ‘Errioti’. Tanzanians mix up their ‘r’ and ‘l’. This is particularly amusing when singing a song like ‘Crown him with many Crowns’. Think about it.

To say that they ‘mix it up’ is not quite accurate actually. It’s just that the language is oral rather than written and the two sounds are quite similar in Swahili. There’s never any problem unless you’re switching between written and spoken language. But if you are, spelling is inconsequential. Our house mama spells her name both ‘Mama Vero’ and ‘Mama Velo’ in her smses to me.

Speaking of smses, when you’re arranging to meet someone, it’s perfectly normal to say, ‘I will pick you’ instead of ‘I will pick you up.’ Likewise, when we go, ‘we will enjoy’ (no ‘it’!)

The meaning’s still clear then, but things can get confusing (for us) when someone speaks about female as a man, or vice versa, especially for a society with taboos about gender bending! Swahili has no gendered pronouns (he/she) so for many Tanzanians, it’s confounding to differentiate between whether to use ‘he’ or ‘she’ in a sentence. It’s not that uncommon to hear people say, ‘My wife, he works as a teacher with her degree.’ Once you get the hang of treating both ‘he’ and ‘she as un-gendered, it’s fine.

The greater problem are usages that come across as rude to Australians. Lots of people when they’re learning to speak English are completely confused by articles (the, a – they don’t exist in the same way in Swahili) and possessives. So kids will often say something like, ‘Give me my water’ or ‘Give me my child’ when they’re trying to politely ask for something!

If you find any of this interesting or surprising, the appropriate exclamation in Tanzanian English is, ‘I say!’

Categories: Bits Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. This made me smile. Interesting about the ‘l’ and ‘r’ being mixed up because the Thai people do the same thing. And ‘v’ becomes ‘w’ so I was called ‘Dewan’ which was then shortened to ‘Det’. :)

  2. I had to deal with similar things when I first knew my wife.
    Singaporeans call their own dialect Singlish; some of the changes involve mixing a few different words from Malay and Chinese with their English and placing an extra syllable at the end of some phrases; for instance “You want coffee-la?”
    Took me a while to get used to it – she speaks “average” English with me but if she’s in the vicinity of another Singaporean she’ll spontaneously slip into Singlish.
    Also because she seems to predominately seems to think in Chinese rather than English she sometimes mixes tenses when she writes as Chinese does not have the level of definiteness of tenses most English has. Like you mention about Tanzanians (and for similar reasons) she can use ungendered “he” and “she” when she speaks. Once every couple of months, as the occasion demands it, she sometimes pauses to translate a Chinese proverb she feels appropriate (thankfully she explains it well).
    Interesting that you mention about Elliot’s name and the issues with it. When choosing our children’s names we needed to think about whether my father-in-law would be able to pronounce it; although he can speak English he predominately speaks Mandarin and thus some letters can be pronounced differently.

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