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Don't Bench That Dentist: A Guide To Ugandan English

Dec 29, 2014
Originally published on February 5, 2015 1:15 am

You want to bench a pretty woman and launch your manifesto. Only you get bounced from her muzigo because she's pursuing a pensioner.

In the end, you were lucky. She's just a detoother who's after a rich guy.

Welcome to Uglish (pronounced "YOU-glish"), the Ugandan variant of English. Bernard Sabiti has written the first Uglish dictionary (not yet available outside of Uganda, but he's working on an e-book version for January).

Here's how he translates the above paragraph: You want to sit down with a pretty woman for a heart-to-heart and express your deep feelings. Only you get turned away from her one-room flat because she's pursuing one of the older white men who retire in Africa seemingly for the purpose of dating much younger women.

And these are equal-opportunity slurs. Gold-digging detoothers (you can also say that someone has a "masters in dentistry") and pensioners can be either female or male.

Sabiti, who speaks and writes a dozen of Uganda's local languages, spent four years compiling his dictionary for a language variant that many educated Ugandans deny is a legitimate language at all. Sabiti says that even educated Ugandans who deplore Uglish use it themselves, sometimes without realizing. Sabiti finds himself accidentally slipping Uglish phrases or grammar into official communications.

Some Uglish terms come from popular songs. This tune from the Ugandan musician Hillary Kiyaga, who raps under the name Dr. Hilderman, links the English phrase "double bed" to a made-up word, mazongoto. The catchy hook "Double Bed Mazongoto," the song explains, is a really big bed, 6 foot by 6 foot.

The song says that wealthy Ugandans get more divorces than poor ones, because a super-king-size bed, a mazongoto bed, makes it easier to sneak off and cheat.

Mazongoto is now standard Uglish for "king-size" whether you're ordering a mattress or describing government corruption.

Official English has a long history of accepting words coined by artists. Shakespeare's eyeball, Lewis Carroll's chortle and bootylicious (coined by Snoop Dogg, popularized by Beyonce) are all now in the OED. Nevertheless, Uglish is as controversial in Uganda as Ebonics is in the U.S.

Even Sabiti, who devoted four years of nights and weekends to his Uglish dictionary, worries that its prevalence is a sign of Uganda's deteriorating public education. Uganda's competitive advantage in the global economy is that it's an English-speaking country. Uglish is both poetry and a threat.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

About a quarter of the world's estimated seven billion people speak English. How well they can understand one another is another matter. In Uganda, there's a form of English called Uglish and it's getting its first dictionary. NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Let's say you want to bench a pretty woman and launch your manifesto on her. That would mean you want to sit her down for a heart-to-heart and express your feelings. Only you go to her muzigo, you get bounced because she's chasing some pensioner - that is, you got turned away from her one-room flat because she's going after one of the older one white men that retire in Africa to date younger women. But in the end, you were lucky because she's just a de-toother.

In fact, she's got a Masters in dentistry. De-toother, or dentist, is a gold-digger, a woman after your money. I learn these terms from Bernard Sabiti. He speaks and writes at least a dozen local languages in Uganda, but has compiled the first dictionary of a language that many educated Ugandans deny is a language at all - the Ugandan-English variant known as Uglish.

BERNARD SABITI: But however educated you might be, you are actually not immune from using it.

WARNER: Sabiti says he's got two university degrees, but sometimes even he finds himself accidently slipping Uglish into official communications.

SABITI: I have to catch myself some way and say oh, see what I just did?

WARNER: Now, some Uglish terms come right from popular songs, like this tune that links the English phrase double bed to a made up word, mazongoto, which the song then defines as a really big bed - 6 foot by 6 foot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOUBLE BED MAZONGOTO")

HILLARY KIYAGA: (Singing) Double bed, mazongoto. Hey, double bed, mazongoto.

WARNER: This song says that wealthy Ugandans get more divorces than poor ones because a super-king-size bed - a mazongoto bed - makes it easier to sneak off and cheat. But mazongoto is now standard Uglish for king-size, whether you're ordering a mattress or describing government corruption. Now, of course, words coined by artists have often entered the official lexicon of English - Shakespeare's eyeball or Lewis Carrol's chortle or Beyonce's bootylicious are all invented words now in the OED. But Uglish is still as controversial as Ebonics. Even Sabiti, who spent four years of nights and weekends to compile this first Uglish dictionary, worries that its prevalence is a sign of Uganda's deteriorating education. Uganda's competitive advantage in the global economy is that it is an English-speaking country. Uglish is both poetry and a threat. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.