Release notes: East African English

Release notes: East African English

Recent OED updates have included a significant number of new entries from South Africa and Nigeria. In this quarterly update, the OED continues to broaden its coverage of words from English-speaking Africa, with the publication of close to 200 new and revised entries for East African English. These additions and revisions are for words used chiefly or exclusively in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, three countries which share a common Anglophone background despite their differing colonial histories.

Something else that Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have in common is their lingua franca, Swahili, and indeed several of the new and revised entries in the East African update are borrowings into English from this language. This includes the oldest of the new entries in this batch, jembe, referring to a hoe-shaped hand tool used for digging, which is first attested in an article by British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1860. Over a hundred years later, renowned Kenyan writer and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o used the same word in his historical novel A Grain of Wheat, first published in 1967.

One of the newest words in this batch is also a Swahili loan word: sambaza, a verb originally used to mean ‘to send mobile phone credit to someone’, but now used more generally to mean ‘to share or send something’. Dating back to 2007, the English word comes from the Swahili word –sambaza meaning ‘to spread, disperse, scatter’, and now also ‘to transfer mobile phone credit’. The transmission into English of this usage with reference to mobile phone credit may have been reinforced by the use of the Swahili word in the name for a credit sharing system in Kenya, introduced in 2005.

Other borrowings in this batch include Swahili forms of address such as mwalimu ‘teacher’ (first attested 1884), as well as Bwana (1860) and its abbreviation, Bw (1973), a title of courtesy or respect prefixed to the surname or first name of a man. There are also expressions and discourse markers of Swahili origin such as asante sana (1911) ‘thank you’, pole sana (1966) ‘sorry’, and ati (2010) ‘as someone said; reportedly, allegedly’.

The current update features several new and revised entries for Swahili-origin words belonging to the semantic domains of East African clothing, cookery, and built environment:

  • buibui (first attested 1929) – a traditional garment worn by Muslim women in East Africa, typically a long black gown with a black head covering that leaves only the eyes or face exposed.
  • kanga (1895) – a type of cotton fabric printed with designs in bright colours, typically in squares or rectangles featuring a border on all four sides, and used especially for women’s clothing; a piece of this fabric, often worn as a shawl or wrap.
  • kanzu (1870) – a long, loose-fitting white tunic worn by men.
  • shuka (1856) – a long piece of fabric usually worn as a loincloth or used as a bedsheet.
  • chapo (1993) – a thin pancake of unleavened wholemeal bread cooked on a griddle.
  • jiko (1973) – a type of portable charcoal or wood-burning stove, typically made of metal with a ceramic lining, used for cooking and heating.
  • mandazi (1937) – a small cake consisting of sweetened dough fried in oil, usually triangular in shape and typically eaten as a snack or as an accompaniment to other dishes; (as a mass noun) these cakes collectively.
  • nyama choma (1980) – roasted or grilled meat.
  • sufuria (1891) – a deep metal cooking pot with a flat base.
  • banda (1908) – a hut or shed with a thatched roof, used typically as a rest house or shelter for travellers.
  • boma (1860) – a barrier formed from thorny branches or wooden stakes, used for defence against attacks by enemies or wild animals; a fence, palisade, or stockade.
  • duka (1912) – a small neighbourhood store selling a variety of goods.
  • tembe (1860) – a rectangular house with mud walls and a flat roof.

The vocabulary of East African English is characterized not just by loan words, but also by lexical innovations based on English elements, several of which have now made their way into the OED. They include words formed through suffixation, such as unprocedural (1929) ‘irregular, illegal’; through clipping, like the verb collabo  (2008) ‘especially of musicians: to collaborate’; and through compounding, such as deskmate (1850) ‘a person who sits next to another at school’. Some English words also have meanings specific to the region. In East African English, the noun tarmac (1982) is also used as a verb meaning ‘to walk the streets looking for work; to job hunt’. A person who is pressed (1958) needs to go to the bathroom, while a stage (1965) is a bus stop or a taxi rank.

In addition to words used throughout East Africa, the OED’s latest update also features words unique to the varieties of English spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The lexicon of Kenyan English is represented by borrowings from a few of its many languages: for example, kiondo (1902) from Kikuyu and Isukuti (1972) from Luhya. A kiondo is a handwoven bag made from cord or string, now usually of sisal, with long handles or straps that can be slung over the shoulder, typical of the traditional handicraft of the Kikuyu and Kamba peoples of Kenya. An isukuti is a wooden drum, traditionally made from a hollowed log, which is usually hung over the shoulder and played by striking with the fingers and palms. Isukuti is also the name of a rhythmic, energetic traditional celebratory dance accompanied by drumming and singing, performed typically at festivals and weddings by the Luhya peoples of Western Kenya, such as the Isukha and Idakho.

Also included in this update are names of Kenyan dishes such as githeri (1973), a traditional central Kenyan dish consisting of boiled maize and legumes, typically beans; and irio (1931), a dish consisting of mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes with maize, peas, and leafy green vegetables such as spinach, typically eaten as an accompaniment to other dishes. Also newly added to the OED are names of traditional Kenyan home-brewed alcoholic drinks: muratina (1968), made from the fermented fruit of the sausage tree, also known locally as muratina; busaa (1967), made from fermented millet, maize, or sorghum flour; and changaa (1975), made from fermented millet, maize, or sorghum grains, a liquor so strong its production and distribution were illegal in Kenya until 2010.

In Kenyan English, a biting (1997) is a bite-sized piece of food, a small snack, appetizer, or canapé; while a merry-go-round (1989) is an informal cooperative savings scheme, typically run by and for women, in which each participant regularly contributes an amount, and the whole sum is distributed to the members in turn. To shrub is to pronounce or write words in another language in a manner that is influenced by one’s mother tongue, and a shrub (2008) is a word pronounced or written in this manner. To shrub and shrub are colloquialisms chiefly used with reference to English or Swahili words pronounced in a manner characteristic of another Kenyan language.

As for Tanzanian English, one of the most widely known words from this variety is daladala, the name of a  van or minibus that carries passengers for a fare as part of a local informal transport system. Dating back to 1983, the English word comes from Swahili, with daladala being a reduplication of dala ‘dollar’, perhaps originally as a bus driver’s call. Dala is also the nickname of the Tanzanian 5-shilling coin, which used to be the typical fare for daladala minibuses.

Tanzania’s contemporary music scene is represented in this batch of new words by Bongo Flava (2003) and singeli (2015). Singeli is a Tanzanian style of fast-paced electronic dance music, combining elements of hip-hop with influences from East African popular music such as taarab (1969), a form of music originating in Zanzibar. Bongo Flava, another style of music from Tanzania, fuses elements of American hip-hop with influences from reggae, R&B, Afrobeat, dancehall, and traditional East African forms of popular music, and features lyrics in Swahili or English. Bongo (1993) is a nickname for the city of Dar es Salaam—bongo being the Swahili word for ‘brain’ or ‘intelligence’, something one needs a lot of in order to thrive in the most populous city in Tanzania.

The vocabulary of Ugandan English draws primarily from Luganda, one of the country’s major languages. Examples of Lugandan borrowings in this batch are kaveera (1994)‘a plastic bag, plastic packaging’; kwanjula (1973)‘an engagement ceremony where the families of the bride and groom formally meet’; and nkuba kyeyo (1991) ‘a Ugandan person working overseas, especially one doing a low-paid or unskilled job’—the Lugandan phrase literally means ‘someone who sweeps’. Katogo (1940) is another loan word from Luganda—it is the name of a typical Ugandan breakfast dish consisting of matoke (banana or plantain) boiled in a pot with various other ingredients. The word later developed a figurative sense, as it began to be used to mean ‘a mixture or fusion of disparate elements; a mess, a muddle’.

Ugandan English also has its share of distinctive uses of existing English words. In Uganda, to cowardize (2003) is to act like a coward or to lose one’s nerve, while to extend (2000) is to move from one’s position so as to make room for someone else. Well done (1971) is used as a friendly greeting or salutation, especially when encountering a person at work or in a state of activity. You are lost! (2013) is also used as a greeting, or in response to a greeting, in a manner similar to ‘long time no see’.

As can be observed in the many examples mentioned in these notes, the English lexicon in East Africa is a reflection of the region’s fascinating diversity of languages and cultures. Another product of this linguistic melting pot is Sheng, a street language blending Swahili with lexical and grammatical elements from English and other languages, originating as part of youth subculture of Nairobi but now also used by people of varying age and social class in urban communities across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. The word Sheng, itself a blend of the words Swahili and English, is first attested in the 30 August 1985 issue of Nairobi’s Standard newspaper. Nearly 40 years later, Sheng is now recorded in the OED, forever a part of the East Africa’s enduring legacy on the English language.

Many thanks to our colleagues in OUP East Africa, Isaiah Mweteri and Florence Waeni, for lending their expertise to Oxford Languages’ work on East African English. We are also grateful to our Ugandan English consultants, Dr Bebwa Isingoma of Gulu University and Prof Christiane Meierkord of Ruhr-Universität Bochum. We also thank Prof Emeritus Thilo Schadeberg of the University of Leiden for his help on the etymology of loan words originating in Bantu languages, and Prof Emeritus Josef Schmied of the University of Technology Chemnitz for his input on the pronunciation model for East African English..

Recommended reading

The OED’s pronunciation model for East African English can be viewed here and the and the key to pronunciation here.

In this chapter of the Oxford Handbook of World Englishes, Prof Emeritus Josef Schmied of the University of Technology Chemnitz discusses the history and linguistic features of East African English.

You can also visit the pages dedicated to East Africa in the OED’s World English hub.

New East African English words, senses, and phrases added to the OED in the June 2022 update

East African English

Kenyan English

Tanzanian English

Ugandan English

Newly revised East African English entries in the June 2022 OED update

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.


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