Marawian Engrish

To my faithful readers, I do apologize for radio silence for the past week.  I’ve been spending much of my time transcribing interviews, and after sitting at the computer and typing all day, I haven’t been motivated to sit at the computer and type a blog post.  But because I’ve spent so much time listening to Malawians speak lately, I thought it was time for a post on English in Malawi.

I will start by acknowledging that I have it pretty good here, language-wise.  Most formal education in Malawi is in English, so the fact that I have only very basic Chichewa skills is not usually a problem.  Nearly everyone knows a few words of English, and the professionals I encounter in my research are all fluent.  Still, a command of the English language doesn’t always mean Malawians are easy to understand to Americans like me!  There are a number of pronunciation quirks that can befuddle the muzungu listener.

One of the most common and most confusing habits of Malawian English speakers is turning Rs into Ls.  My friend Verity is, to Malawians, Velity, birds are bildz, and robber is lob-ah.  People mispronounce their own names, too; Grace is Glace.  I am Amelican and speak Engrish, but I live in Rirongwe.  (Actually, the L to R switch seems to be less common, but still occurs.)  Additionally, many Malawians add unnecessary -ee sounds to the end of words, particularly words that already end in E.  Excuse (as in “excuse me) is excuseee me.  Shoes are shoeies.  You can extrapolate from here.

I often find (especially when transcribing) that while Malawian English is generally very proper, the accent is often on a different syllable than one would hear in the United States.  Words that end in -tion are particularly prone to type of pronunciation, and I often have to rewind and relisten for words like association, diversification, station, etc.  Generally, the emphasis falls on the syllable with the long A sound.

I’m interested in how the English alphabet is taught here, actually.  No one spells my name correctly; so far, I’ve seen it written Emmi (the most common), Any (a few different occasions), and, my personal favorite, Army (from a secretary at the college).  Even when I say my name, it is sometimes difficult for Malawians to understand.  I get called Emily a lot.

The penchant for phonetic writing is no where more clear than in the grocery store.  Two popular (and cheap) brands of shortbread cookies are EET-SUM-MOR and HAV-SUM-MOR.  My housemates both enjoy EET-SUM-MORs, and occasionally mix up their boxes of cookies, leading to endless jokes about who ate some more.  (Hey, entertainment in Lilongwe is pretty lackluster.)

Apparently, they are also best & original

Apparently, they are also original AND best

Aside from pronunciation issues, Malawian English has its own phrases that may confuse the uninitiated.  As I may have mentioned in the past, to call someone and hang up before they answer is to flash someone.  This leads to conversations that in the US would be wholly inappropriate – “give me your number, and I’ll flash you later!”  Now is a word that, in Malawi, could mean at this moment or at any time in the indeterminate future – if at all.  Usually people will use the phrase “just now” for something happening soon, and “now-now” if the meaning is “immediately, at present.”  Another fun phrase is the what-what.  The what-what is a synonym for “stuff like that” or etc.  Depending on the speaker, a string of more than two whats may be used.  An example from today’s interview transcription:  “But the farmers will say, no, I don’t want to go out of [the organization], there are so many trainings, what what what.”

Other linguistic quirks are, I think, a product of colonization:  you don’t give someone a ride, you give them a lift; you don’t pick someone up, you fetch them.  Instead of asking “where do you live / stay?” the question is, “where do you put up?”  Cookies are called biscuits, and fried potatoes (not quite french fries) are chips.  And of course, one of my personal favorites:  if Malawians do not have nsima at a meal, they will say they have not eaten – no matter what else may have been consumed.  This last one is more than a turn of phrase, it’s illustrative of far greater cultural norms about eating and food.  One of the biggest barriers to crop diversification – and, in my opinion, one of the most difficult to address – is lack of dietary diversity (and lack of interest in dietary diversity)  here.   I’ll leave that subject for a future post!


6 Responses to “Marawian Engrish”

  1. Karen Says:

    Very interesting!

  2. Rachel Says:

    This is very interesting. It reminds me of a few videos that we watched in my Post-Colonial fiction class.

  3. Jessie Says:

    I have noticed the L and R thing when reading books with African dialogue. I just finished a book called “Say You’re One of Them” and I often had to read out loud, remembering the swap. It’s a really good book, if you like reading the most depressing stories ever from the point of view of African children.

  4. Asa Says:

    Hi Amy,

    I found your post while googling Malawi, kwacha and fonetics. Love your blog, it’s so interesting. I work for an American company who runs an organisation called Nourish the Children. We have a “teaching village” in Malawi that we raise money for, and we also donate food. One of my colleagues earned a trip there in May, and I am so proud of him. I am trying to learn a few words in the local language to teach him, but so far I only know like kwacha and azungu. How do you pronounce kwacha? Just like it’s spelled?

    You wrote that you needed a fleece jacket for chilly mornings, so I’ll tell him not to just pack his shorts and t-shirts! We live in Sweden so the weather up here will be pretty warm by then…

    Have a great day and enjoy the rest of your stay.

    Kind regards, Asa

    PS Loved the “EET/HAV-SUM-MOR” bisquits 🙂

  5. George Tambala Says:

    I find your experience of Malawain English very interesting. I am Malawian and was taught English in secondary school by one teacher from Scotland who spent most of his time training us to pronounce ‘rs’ the scottish way, heavy ‘rs’. I remember the annoyance of the headmaster who was an English man to hear us rehearsing the scottish ‘rs’. He told us to stop what he called ‘nonsense’. You see Amy, even us are confused a lot with the way english speakers from usa, australia, scotland, new zealand speak. I also happened to do studies in spain and I speak it fluently. You know what? The same story, the spaniards claim that they cannot understand the cubans when they speak their spanish, and story is the same among south american spanish speakers. I admire a lot what West African have done; ‘pidgin english’ Malawians must make an effort at learning correctly the rules of English but as for the rest, let us be malawian english speakers with our ‘ls’ said instead of ‘rs’ I hope I have not offended you. I mean well; just wanted to contribute as a Malawian.

  6. Jane Goody Says:

    I read your posts for quite a long time and must tell that your posts always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

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