Monday, October 01, 2007

Liberian English

Liberia is classified as an “Anglophone” country. Despite its 15 active tribal languages, the official language of the country is English. This makes it easier for us to work here, obviously because we did not have to learn a completely new language upon arrival. I said it makes it easier, but understanding the Liberian version of English is not always easy, and even after two years sometimes it is impossible. Being the amateur linguist that I am, I’ve been able figure out what is behind this difficulty in understanding my native tongue when uttered by many Liberians. It is not simply a matter of accent.

First, and most obvious to the listener, is in the way Liberians pronounce many words—the end of many words are left off. “House” becomes “haw”, “dog” becomes “daw”, “serious” becomes “seria”, and so on. Sometimes even each syllable in multi syllable words are deleted, so “redlight” might become “re’li’”, “everything” is “e’ry’tin’, or ” kool aid” is “koo aye.”

To complicate matters significantly, Liberians use different English words than most North Americans choose. For example, “reaching” means “leaving” as in “I’m reaching to my hou’,” “finish” means “to be out of something,” As in “the rice is finish,” or “flog” instead of “beat,” as in “My brother tol’ me he wou’ flog me.” Finally, Liberians finish many words randomly in “O,” as in “fini-o” for “finish,” or “daw-o” to give “dog” a little more panache.

Therefore when you combine words pronounced differently with word choices that are different than what you’ve lived with all your life, you get sentences that are just a little beyond reach until you understand both the usage of the word and the pronunciation of all the words in the sentence.

So, putting these factors together, we might have the following sentences—see if you can figure them out:

1. “Trokon carry mah own sef pla’ toe to hi’ hou’.’” (Literally, “Trokon carry my own self play toy to his house,” or “Trokon took my toy to his house.”)

2. “Dea’ ca’ be sweeo.” (Literally,” Deer can be sweet-o,” or “Venison is delicious.” )

3. Leh ca’ta’ eh sleepi’ bah da’ pi’ hou’ (Literally, “the carter it sleeping by the pig house” or “The carter (a clothe pad used to cushion the head when carry things) was left out all night near the pig pen.”)

4. “De ro’ he wah a bri’ one and dryo.” (Literally, “The rogue he was a bright one and dry-o,” or “The thief was light-skinned and very thin.”)

5. “Leh pum’ eh spoi’. Le’ carry de jeep to tow’ fo’ new pah.’” (Literally, “The pump is spoiled, let’s carry the jeep to town for new part,” or “The pump is not working, so let’s take the 4wd vehicle into town for a new part.”)

6. “Boieh! Boieh! Boieh!” (Literally, “Boiled egg, boiled egg, boiled egg!” which children shout as they carry hard boiled eggs for sale on the street.)

7. “Unca Bah, I juke mah foo-o. Plea’ pu’ plasti’ on mah cuh.” (Literally, “Uncle Bob, I juke my foot. Please put plastic on my cut,” or “Uncle Bob, something jabbed or poked into my foot. Please put a band aid on my cut.”)

8. “Eneh, i’ yaw wais’ wateh on ma’ trouseh, I weh sureleh blow yaw mouf.” (Literally, “Enoch, if you waste water on my trousers, I will surely blow your mouth, “ or “Enoch, if you dump or spill that water on my pants, I will certainly punch you in the mouth.”)

9. Deh worsha’ weh fi’fi’. We gettin’ yaw puh-lenti!” (Literally, “The worshop was fine, fine. We getting you plenty,” Or “The workshop was very good. We understood you very well.”)

10. “Whi’ ma’, plea’ buy suh’ re’ oi’ fruh me. One hundreh LD.” (Literally, White Man, please buy some red oil from me. One hundred LD.” Red oil is palm nut oil; LD is Liberian Dollars—in this case about $1.80 US. )

11. “Sis Renita, I cuh’ to spe’ to yaw.” (Literally, Sis Renita, I come to speak to you,” or “Sister, Renita, I dropped by just to say hi.”)

Not everybody speaks like this, but these phrases reflect a large portion of the people with whom we live and work each day. Some people, such as government or business leaders speak very similar English to me, with only what I call the attractive “African accent” distinguishing us. Others speak a version of English so different in cadence, inflection, pronunciation, syntax and vocabulary as to require interpretation. Most children are harder to understand than adults. In our neighborhood, English is a second language to Bassa for many, and a significant minority speak virtually no English. So getting to understanding each other always takes a little extra time, even for simple things. Bu’, we ah tryin’, sma’ sma’, wid dis talkin’ ting he’. An’ soo’, we wi’sureleh be gettin’ e’rybodeh puh-lenty clea’, an den’ we ha’ a googoo ti’ togeddeh.


julie said...

I loved this post! I have been learning this language has been so funny at times. It is great fun.

Sharon said...

What a great explanation! Thanks!


Valerie said...

As a recent adoptive mother of a Liberian boy I can totally relate to this post. It requires good listening skills for us both!


Heidi said...

Good explanation. Tell Hannah hi for me. :^)
-Heidi Sheppard

Anonymous said...

This was my first language! Of course I no longer speak it ever since I moved to the US, but thanks for the memories.

Anonymous said...

Le blo' eh too goo' ya!
Ten' yaw :-)

Danielette said...

I was born and raised in Liberia and even though ive lived in America for most of my life that is how we speak when we are around family and other Liberians until i read this blog i could never understand why i always had to repeat everyting my mother said to my American friends even though to me it sounded like she was speaking plain english when you see you native dialect written down like this i can understand the confusiono

MottaGuedes said...

Fantastic post. :)
I've been feeling this in the flesh for the past two and a half months. hehehe

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Been in the US for years, but can't help myself. Grow up among the Mindingo, spoke Bassa, Kpelle, and a little of Vai(Ol grow-na bo). With this, my Liberian English is all I have to share with my kids after all these years. My brother who works for the US State Department in Liberia,came over for visit.. his mou wah opin wen I started talking about all my pidgin den. I think this is a beautiful version of the English Language...sounds funny and it's the quickest way of being understood by a big number of our people. Le' me shal mah mou yaaaa....

Anonymous said...

Loved this post. Lived in Liberia for 5 years and still miss it. Am writing a volunteer manual for a mission and want to include a page on Liberian English.
Thanks for some hints.

Anonymous said...

Love this! I'm a first generation American (Liberian Parents) and our language is one of the only things that connects us to our country. Deh writin' sweet, tank u plentey!

korpo said...

i was happy when i saw this site on google, because it showed me that i have a langauge. i am from the loma ethic group, but guess what i don't know how to speak it.

Sia said...

Your post is adorable and lovely. I am playwright and I am presently working on my One-Women-Show called Uncle Sam's Children in Africa". The play is based on the true story of The Liberian civil war that erupted in December 1989. For a year and half now I have been trying to let me characters speak in Liberian english, I have to admite its hard for me to keep it up. I always end up going back to my normal voice, a bit of kissi, liberian english, and of course my new American english. Bara har o. Sia

Anonymous said...

Some of our Jamaican words are quite similar for example I juke my foot is something you will hear many Jamaicans say. I always have wondered how where many of our local Jamaican sayings are derived from. I know some of our words are Akan, Igbo, Yoruba and now Liberian.
Thanks for posting
Yana from Jamaica

Just_Me said...

I love this post. Does anyone know where I can learn the Liberian language?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this and i love it very much. im from Liberia and this is what make me different from others that speak English.I am proud to be a Liberian

Marina Satia said...

This is a really unique language i been in liberia for 5 years and now im all grown and still remember my language :)