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Loving the Simplicity of Ugandan English

By Catherine Rutan, 2018 MIAP-Noble Fellow

Posted Jul. 30, 2018

I've found language in Africa to be an interesting thing. The official language of most African nations is French or English depending on its history of colonization. However, the official language usually is spoken primarily in the academic and business circles of the country. In Uganda there are 41 living languages, meaning that they are still spoken by a group of people. In our area, the language is Lango and the dialect is Luo. I am still in the very slow process of learning some Luo. Ryan and I decided that we will have a "Kunde phrase of the day" that our driver will teach us each day.

Irene, Ryan and I enjoying time before church.Irene, Ryan and I enjoying time before church.

In the meantime I am trying to catch on to Ugandan English and am falling in love with its beautiful simplicity. It really does need its own dictionary because Webster makes things too complicated. In the absence of a Ugandan English dictionary, I will share a few phrases:

"You're welcome."

This is not a reply to "thank you" but rather someone welcoming you to their home or business. I love the earnestness of their welcome with this phrase and the effort to always make sure that the guest has a chair even if only for a short visit. Coming into my fourth week here, I think I've finally managed to not internally break out into the "You're Welcome" song from "Moana" every time someone welcomes us.

Walter, one of Field of Hope's trainers, teaching the smallholder farmers how to use an inexpensive thresher to improve their postharvest outcomes.Walter, one of Field of Hope's trainers, teaching the smallholder farmers how to use an inexpensive thresher to improve their postharvest outcomes.

"It's OK."

Yes—that is all that it means. This has probably been one of the harder phrases for me to truly understand. In the States, I know that when I say "It's OK," I'm leaning on the "no" side of "yes." In Uganda, they take the word for what it is worth and are letting you know that the answer is OK, it is good.

"You're so smart."

What is actually meant here is "You look pretty/handsome." This is a phrase that I am utterly in love with. How great is it that the word "smart," a word that isn't always taken as a compliment in the states, is used in such a positive way?

Walter teaching the group PICS storage bags. It is really cool when you see something you learned in class actually being used in the field!Walter teaching the group PICS storage bags. It is really cool when you see something you learned in class actually being used in the field!

These are just a few of the phrases used in Ugandan English that American English just cannot stand up to. And if you think speaking more clearly will help with any gaps in the English, you would be incorrect. Go slow, remove a few words, try a little mumble and you'll hit the mark. And don't speak loudly either, because Ugandans only yell when they're talking to Jesus.

After 22 years of being told to speak up, I can happily talk quietly, tell people they are smart and get lots of hugs as I'm welcomed everywhere. I'm a fan of Uganda.

Ryan and Irene going over curriculum with high school teachers.Ryan and Irene going over curriculum with high school teachers.

About the Author

Catherine Rutan is a 2018 MIAP-Noble Fellow serving in agricultural development roles in Uganda. Rutan is from Spring, Texas, and is a student in the Master of International Agriculture Program at Oklahoma State University, where she focuses on international development. This fellowship is sponsored in part by the Noble Research Institute.

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