Tuesday, 11 October 2011

It came in a ship

A common saying in Kenya is "kizungu kilikuja na meli" loosely translated to mean that English came in a ship hence our struggles with it. Having grown up in a house where both parents at were at one time teachers has made me learn the finer details of the language by default. I remember as child when I'd go home and use some of the colloquialisms I learnt in school my parents would be quick to correct me. After all they were in school during the colonial days so were taught by native speakers. In high school too our director who was Kenyan by birth but English by descent also took the liberty to teach us a few things about the English language especially about pronunciation. I'll never forget how to pronounce Goliath correctly. With this background it is no surprise that once in a while I find myself in the 'grammar Nazi category' Now let's have a few examples of some words and phrases that are not very well used particularly in the press where they have achieved cliche status.

Let us begin with a little nugget I learnt from Dr Griffin. Last week we lost a great Kenyan in Professor Wangari Maathai and to mourn her death the president ordered the flag to be flown at half mast. Now at first glance you'd think that half mast means hoisting the flag halfway up the post but I came to learn from the good old director that what that actually means is the flag is flown the width of the flag below the top. Interesting that, not so much about grammar but tradition. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half-staff

Another word which I had erroneously thought meant something else is one which is very often quoted in the media is impunity. They're always talking about ending the culture of impunity etc. At some point it had started being used all over the place like when matatus raise fares that's impunity or when the cabinet decided to amend the constitution to suit their own ends they were accused of impunity. I had come to be leave that the word meant disregard or 'madharau' in kiswahili. However one day I consulted the 'msema kweli' (the one who speaks the truth) and looked it up in the dictionary and found out the real meaning of the word to be as follows... courtesy of http://www.thefreedictionary.com/impunity
Impunity -Exemption from punishment, penalty, or harm.
Also when somebody does something without regard for the consequences they are said to do so 'with impunity'. So for example saying that the Hague would end impunity in Kenya would be correct as the accused face consequences which they would otherwise have not. However in the case of constitution amendments it sounds out of place as there is no punishment involved there... that could be up for debate as there could be other unwelcome consequences.

We move on to another word which is a pet peeve for me due to it's common misuse. The word epitome. Some have used it to mean the height of something e.g "he has reached the epitome" yet in actual fact it means that which characterizes something or in other words the quintessence, a perfect example. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/epitome. It sounds more to describe a state than a place where somebody gets.

Another nugget which I found out was the real meaning of dowry. When people go to discuss what they'll give the family of the bride before a wedding we usually call that dowry negotiations while the actual fact is that in our culture here in Kenya what we're really negotiation is the bride price. Technically dowry is what the bride brings into the marriage not what you give her parents. Wikipedia explains it excellently here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowry . Was surprised when I found that out. Nowadays when I come across a word I'm not sure about always make an effort to look it up in the dictionary, bet I'll get more surprises along the way.

There are also other little things that my parents always pick up on TV or in speech, I'll call them Kenyanisms. Phrases like "I was bought for" starting sentences with double pronouns"me I", "us we", "them they" come up pretty often. Oh and written language exposes even more grammatical and spelling errors. 

What other common Kenyanisms can you think of that will awaken the Grammar Nazis among us?