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Twisted Tongue: Learning To Speak American

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Twisted tongue: Learning to speak American

Yesterday, the Catholic Church got a new Pope. The sight of the white smoke and the noise from excited faithfuls coming in through the TV sets in the newsroom, for a minute, interrupted an otherwise quiet but busy afternoon. In my race to be an early twitter on the holy smokes, I  sent out this Tweet.

Ululations tweet

A few minutes later, a colleague who’d seen my tweet asked: “Elvina, what does your tweet mean? I can’t pronounce that word.”

That word was “ululations”.

And so I then found out I had used a word most Americans never use. I grew up speaking a Ugandan variation of British English, and we frequently used “ululation” as an an onomatopoeic word  for  loud sounds of excitement similar to those emitted at the Vatican City on the announcement of a new pope.

I’m not sure how frequently the term is used in Britain or elsewhere, but there’s probably a good explanation for why it’s common in Uganda.   We ululate a lot – at weddings, at funerals, at graduation parties, at the birth of a child, during church service and even during casual conversations. And it sounds just like this: “Wululululuuuuu” [Wooo-looo-looo-loooo] – You just tried that, didn’t you?
In some Bantu languages, it’s called “Akaluulu.”

For instance, a preacher in church will make an announcement of a big donation and then shout:  “Akaluulu?” And the congregation will respond with loud sounds  made from rolling the tongue against the roof the mouth, often delivered with hands tapping the lips to add a vibration or waving hands in the air.

Uganda adopted the British language  from her colonial master, and now working as a journalist in the U.S., I’ve had to learn new spellings and new word choices. I remember in graduate school at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, one professor chided a French classmate and me for continually writing “learnt” instead of “learned”. I’ve let go of the “u”s in “labor” and “neighbor”,  and don’t understand why people can’t open the “boot”  and the “bonnet”  and instead opt to pop the “trunk” and the “hood”.

I’ve negotiated unsuccessfully with an editor to keep the word “queue” in a story and had to replace it with the less dramatic “make a line”.

So are the language trials and tribulations of a Ugandan journalist in America.