Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Hi and Other Things That Are Ok No Problem

Greetings to friends, family (hi, Sam's mom!), and denizens of the recesses of the internet1. As you may be able to surmise (and honestly, I don't really care about your abilities; I just wanted a chance to use the word “surmise”), I am Alex, the other2 half of the creative team of this blog.3

1 If the last applies to you, stay on this site! We're some deep dudes thinking some deep thoughts!*
2 And more attractive
3 The non-creative team is our staff of editors, which currently consists of four small Ugandan children who occasionally look over our shoulder as we are writing, and smile. I'm glad for this, because a real editorial team would never have let me get away with stuff like writing four footnotes full of roosterpoop in my first two sentences.
* Sam, look! I made sure that no one we don't know will ever look at our blog!

Sam seems to have already covered much of our living situation and other minutiae including some of the characters that have made themselves known to us, so I'll just go ahead and jump right into the important parts: linguistic difficulties.

That sounds fascinating, but I really have to go water my pet rock right now.

As detailed by the estimable Mr. Linder, one of the semi-permanent residents of our hillside dwelling is a septuagenarian Italian known as Ettore. He is charged with overseeing the various Kampalan construction and maintenance projects undertaken by the NGO we work for, which at the present time includes building a two-story dormitory at the elementary school, a free-standing kitchen at the secondary boarding school, and a compound to house a printing press and library; various other small projects are undertaken from time to time.

Being as classes at the school we'll be teaching in don't start until February,4 when I arrived I was sent to help the team working on the foundations of the dormitory. Perhaps that previous sentence would be made clearer by omission of the word “help,” because I was basically dropped off at the construction site and neither told anything nor introduced to anyone. Although SPOILER ALERT

4 As part of a concerted effort to make sure that nothing in this country can be accomplished in a simple or efficient manner, the Ugandan Ministry of Education divided the school year into trimesters: early February-late April; late May-mid August; mid September-mid November.

I (and Sam, when he arrived) eventually actually ended up both doing a decent amount of work of my own volition and getting on very friendly terms5 with the 10-man crew, their foreman Justin, and the building engineer James, my initial idleness gave me a unique perspective to perform a study in linguistic anthropology on the dialectical oddities used in communication on a construction site peopled by native speakers of Italian, English, Luganda, and other Ugandan tribal languages.

5 Which are the only kind of terms in Uganda: “speaking terms,” “contract terms,” and “terms of service” have all been supplanted by “friendly terms.”

My study yielded the conclusion that pretty much everyone does fine: the majority who speak Lugandan either as a first or acquired language just use that, while with the foreman and various muzungu who speak limited Luganda, English serves just fine.

“Pretty much everyone,” however, leaves out our dear friend Ettore6. He has never had the distinct misfortune of studying the English language, and having no knowledge of Luganda7 has created a
pidgin, which I, in my role as scientist, hereby dub “Ugandan Italish Pidgin not Pigeon Because There Aren't Any of Those Here; Pigeons, That Is, Not Pidgins: There's a Pidgin Right Here At This Construction Site.”8

6 Who is really a good friend and besides a genuinely kind human being, so any jokes at his expense are made out of a brotherly sense of joshing. Made easier perhaps by the fact that even if he reads this he won't have the foggiest what it's about.
7 He claims to have once spoken a mean Acholi, which is the language of a northern tribe,** but since every Acholi phrase he has taught me contains a liberal smattering of Italian words, I am not inclined to believe him.
8 Sorry.
** Which claims as native son one Joseph Kony 2012.

Salient features of this pidgin include:
  1. Influences from Italian, English, and Some Strange Language That I Have Not Yet Identified But Which Appears to Consist Mostly of the Word “Problem.”
  2. Sentences of exactly one word each (invariable).
  3. Extremely limited vocabulary (see list of words identified).
  4. No discernible grammar.9
Words heretofore identified include:10 Ok, big, small, mizur^, problem^^, no, Ettore, good^^^, remove, bring, and timber^^^^.

9 This is the one feature of the pidgin in question that recommends it as a viable alternative to any other language, most of which possess a grammar that is, to quote a classmate in my high school Italian course, “too damn complicated, you know what I'm saying?”
10 And are limited to

^ Appears to derive from the Italian word “misura,” meaning measure. Although every word in the pidgin serves many functions (except for “Ettore,” which generally serves the function of “Ettore”), “mizur” is perhaps the most ambiguous. Possible meanings include: measure, long, short, good, tape measure, tall, short, bad, just, unjust, offensive, Brobdingnagian, and three.
^^ The words ok, problem, no, and some combination thereof, e.g. “problem no ok,” account for nearly 75% of the spoken utterances recorded.
^^^ Curiously, the word “bad” does not appear, making this pidgin the most universally optimistic language discovered since baby-talk.
^^^^ As much as I wish “timber” were used as an exclamation to warn against large falling objects, it appears to represent simply “lumber.”

In an intriguing development, this language is the first ever analyzed by this scholar that displays the curious property of being unintelligible to all but one person on earth. All other members of the construction crew reacted to use of this speech in much the same way as you or I would react to a pigeon11 landing in front of us while clearly trying to impart some extremely important information via a series of clucks and squawks. Their befuddled bemusement was so complete that if they did understand, they deserve employment as actors instead of as construction workers.

After a time, however, I was given an opportunity rarely accorded anthropological linguists12 when I voluntarily became a part of the community experiencing this never-before-documented language by deciding that lack of direction be damned, I was going to help out.13 While my first moment on the receiving end of the pidgin in question resulted in limited success—in response to a command to “bring big,” I brought Ettore in turn a large piece of lumber, a wheelbarrow, and a large shovel before it was revealed to me that he in fact wanted a hammer.14

11 Not a pidgin, just to be clear
12 And more remarkable still considering I am not, in fact, an anthropological linguist, however much the preceding research may have demonstrated an impeccable grasp of that science's finer points.
13 Naturally, I inadvertently broke several things before they cottoned on that the only way to be safe from my “help” was to tell me what to do.
14 Which in my defense was much not bigger than all of the items I brought him.

And then a funny thing happened. Ettore turned to me and said “remove timber—problem,” and it was as if I had turned a corner in my mind that gave onto a vista of indescribable vastness and beauty—I heard his words trumpeted by angels, but now they sounded more like “please help to take out the nails from that board, as you can clearly see it is crooked and will obstruct the flow of cement into this area.” Sometimes all you need is to hear something in your language.

Note: Thanks for muddling through this (which, by the way, is about 95% factually accurate). I promise more pictures and less footnotes next time. If you want to see anything else I've written about being abroad and don't want to wait until the next time I post here, check out my blog over at Wordpress, which will not be updated while I'm in Uganda.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, yourself, Alex! Love reading about all of your adventures.